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Write hard, aim low – ‘Mank’

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The term “movie magic” gets bandied about pretty regularly, even in these cynical times. It is intended to evoke the sense of awe and wonder that is often born of the cinematic arts, but it should also be noted that there’s a darkness that sometimes goes hand in hand with magic – a darkness rendered all the more deeply courtesy of film’s flickering light.

“Mank” is a film that is unafraid to delve into that darkness, exploring the bleak underside of the rapid rise of early Hollywood. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, “Mank” is ostensibly the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the writer (or co-writer, depending on how much stock you put into early-70s Pauline Kael) of the iconic “Citizen Kane,” but in many ways, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.

“Mank” is an ode to old Hollywood, but not the sort of self-celebration we so often see from stories set in that time and place. Instead, we get a glimpse into the unseemly sleaziness that was so thoroughly shot through the industry at that time, with tyrannical studio heads and other assorted titans freely and unrelentingly taking advantage of those with even a modicum less power than they possessed. It is a story of one man’s journey from respectability to sellout to burnout to oddly noble flameout, all set against the backdrop of a time that has been cynically romanticized by an industry that loves nothing more than patting itself on the back.

In the early days of Hollywood, the trip out west was practically a rite of passage for writers of any ilk. Playwrights and journalists and novelists and whoever made for a steady exodus from the cultural bastions of the east, all looking for fame or fortune or both. Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, “A Place Among the Dead”) was one of them, a reporter who became a drama critic and – among other associations – a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table before making his way to Tinseltown. He hooked up with Paramount in the mid-1920s, writing title cards and then scripts when the transition to talkies took hold.

(His attitude regarding his employment is neatly summed up by the famous telegram he sent to an associate back in New York City, inviting the man to join him because there were “millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.”)

The structural story of the film is relatively simple. Mank has been brought to a ranch, stashed there with a bum leg and no booze, in order to pen an uncredited first draft of a film for the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke, “The Show”). His minder/babysitter is John Houseman (Sam Troughton, TV’s “Chernobyl”); his secretary/stenographer is Rita Alexander (Lily Collins, TV’s “Emily in Paris”). Everyone is devoted to pushing/cajoling/imploring Mank to complete the script that would eventually become “Citizen Kane.”

But what this movie is REALLY about comes forward in the flashbacks, telegraphed by the Fincherian stylistic flourish of slug lines to indicate time and place. This is where we watch Mank’s slow, meandering insinuation into the world of Hollywood and its power brokers. We see him drink and quip and quip and drink his way through various office meetings and social events, all in service to a medium that he can never quite view as worthy of his talents.

The circles in which he moves contain some real power brokers, legendary studio figures like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, “Lapsis”) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, TV’s “Victoria”) and David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore, TV’s “Billions”). Mank’s friendship with screen starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, “You Should Have Left”) leads in turn to his introduction into the orbit of wealthy media magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, “The Book of Vision”). For some time, Mank serves as a court jester of sorts, a hard-drinking fool quick with a pithy bon mot and a willingness to speak truth to power. He’s unafraid to nip at the various hands that feed him – a tendency that ultimately proves to be his undoing.

Back and forth we move in time, from the sweaty quietude of furious screenwriting to the ever-increasing scale of Mank’s involvement with and understanding of the movie business. It is only when the power of cinema is turned toward influencing political outcomes in the real world that Mank truly reckons with what he has helped bring into being. We move from watching him deteriorate to witnessing the end stages of that deterioration, even as he musters up the full measure of his will and talent to craft the best work of his life – work that he has decided must bear his name, contractual agreements be damned.

“Mank” is a virtuosic stylistic achievement, a stunning technical feat. Exquisite touches both large and small contribute to a feeling of doubling, of a movie that exists both in the past and in the present. Shots that capture the period vibe not just in their content, but in their execution – wide shots meant to indicate matte-painted backgrounds, manufactured cigarette burns to mark reel changes … the list goes on. All in service to crafting a film that is reflective of the film that served as its inspiration. Fincher has always had tremendous gifts in the aesthetic arena; “Mank” is as full a realization of these gifts as we’ve seen.

But the film’s look is not all that is owed to the past. The rapid-fire staccato nature of the dialogue and the exquisite impact of the script’s many quips and barbs feels fresh out of a screwball comedy – precisely the sorts of pictures that were on the upswing during this time in Hollywood. That sense of everyone being quick of wit and sharp of tongue is wonderfully engaging.

(Also worthy of note is the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The frequent Fincher collaborators find the sweet spot in crafting music that is both of and outside the moment in which the action takes place. It is strikingly sympatico, providing the perfect aural companion to this world.)

It’s also a film about the medium’s dark power, its ability to shape the opinions of and incept ideas into its audiences. It is about the moral bankruptcy that power can invite, offering a portrait of men with a callous indifference to anything other than their own personal benefit. And it is about a man who finally is forced to realize that he has played his own part in this dance of the damned, and that despite his efforts to hold himself removed, he shares in the guilt. He is no longer the fool; he is simply made foolish.

What it’s NOT about – or at least, not as much as we might have expected – is the question of authorship, something Fincher and company don’t seem all that interested in relitigating. If anything, this story is more fiction than fact as far as "Citizen Kane" is concerned. Instead, “Mank” seeks to unpack the environment into which that film was birthed. 

Gary Oldman is an interesting choice here. While his talents are undeniable, he’s nearly two decades older than the man he’s playing. The actor’s gifts for presenting a lived-in world-weariness go some distance to compensating for that fact. The black-and-white palette helps as well. Oldman is particularly good at moving from background to foreground and back again – key to his success in a film packed with so many kinetic shifts. It’s a great performance, but one does have to wonder what a more age-appropriate casting might have added.

Seyfried is one of those actors who continually surprises; her steady improvement over the years leaves her as one of the most underrated performers out there. Her Davies is note perfect, a woman who long ago learned to conceal her true nature behind an armor of blonde airheadedness. Dance strikes the perfect note of imperiousness as Hearst, evoking the self-assured quietude of a man who knows that he is the most powerful person in any room he might enter. Howard and Kingsley both get some real shining moments – Howard does a walk-and-talk that is absolute dynamite, just for example. Collins gets lost in the shuffle somewhat; she’s a wonderful actor, but much of her work seems shoehorned in. And Burke makes the most of his limited screen time, giving us the unique vocal quality and charismatic smoothness of young Orson Welles.

Most of the time, films telling stories of this period treat the era as a Golden Age of sorts. This is definitely not that. One could argue that “Mank” does in fact serve as a love letter to Hollywood – just not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing. It offers up a look at a far more toxic sort of love, the kind of unhealthy, obsessive romance that too often ends in tears and pain – just as this one does.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 07 December 2020 11:59

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