Movie review: Mank (as in Herman)

Herman Mankiewicz

MankThe first movie I saw in an actual cinema was Mank. I viewed it at Landmark’s Spectrum 8 in Albany the Thursday before the Oscars. Only some of the seats were available, for COVID reasons. I’ve been vaccinated so I was feeling reasonably comfortable.

I had been looking forward to seeing this film since Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies, talked about it several months earlier on CBS Sunday Morning.

Ben’s interest was not just cinematic, though. He is a grandson of the topic of the film, Herman Mankiewicz, a noted writer for newspapers and magazines, who famously may have co-written as many as 40 films.

The movie is about “1930’s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941),” the only movie for which he was, with Welles, actually credited with writing.

Didn’t love it

This was a story I knew something about. Mank’s peculiar platonic relationship with actress Marion Davies (a very good Amanda Seyfried), who was the paramour of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank’s long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) explains why she stays with her husband: “It’s never boring.”

But despite the cool black and white details, I found the narrative frustratingly jumbled. The review in Jacobin magazine addresses much of it. “The ‘Mank’ story hardly needs embellishment, but the Finchers, father, and son, give it plenty anyway. There are about fifty published posts out there that explain which parts of Mank are factual and which are made up.”

“The dinner party scene is a garbled mess, though [director David] Fincher seems to have lavished elaborate care upon it.” It’s set up as Important but it felt oddly flat.

“The way it’s filmed is so blandly unmemorable, it would’ve done much to undercut it. The film’s lax flashback structure from Mankiewicz’s point-of-view seems to be in contrast to Citizen Kane’s dynamic flashback structure from multiple, contradictory points of view.” While the chronology was noted throughout, the need for jumping back and forth in time was lost on me.

Or maybe I just missed it

Think Christian suggests that in the “Oscar-nominated film, Gary Oldman plays a truth-teller in a gadfly’s clothing.” So “Mank repeatedly lampoons the latent hypocrisy and brutal inhumanity of Hollywood’s dream machine. In doing so, this self-described ‘washed-up’ screenwriter impishly reminds viewers that, flaws and all, great prophets (and artists) courageously speak truth to power.”

For instance, “Mank witnesses Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) earnestly plead with his MGM employees to accept a fifty-percent pay cut so the studio may survive the Great Depression intact… Knowing Mayer’s self-serving nature and deep pockets, Mank sardonically observes, ‘Not even the most disgraceful thing I have ever seen.’” But he doesn’t say this to Mayer, so…

Still, “whereas Mayer feigns caring but lives indifference, Mank takes the opposite path.” Mank’s transcriber Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) works with him on the Kane script as he recovers from a car accident.

“When asked [by Rita] to defend her loyalty to her alcoholic and antisocial patient, Mank’s German caregiver, Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann), reveals that he secretly donated the funds necessary to save 100 Jewish residents in her village from Nazis. Confronted with his altruism, Mank replies, ‘Dear Freda. What’s German for blabbermouth?’

Perhaps all of the goodness of the movie is there somewhere. The critics gave it an 83% positive review, though only 60% of the general audience agreed. Or maybe I wanted to like my first cinematic experience in 14 months too much. Having finally seen all of the nominated films for Best Picture this season, Mank might be my least favorite; ah, well.

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