Mank (2020) Director: David Fincher
“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”
Mank is a brilliant new film by David Fincher about Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz and his story of creating the script for Citizen Kane (read my reflections on Citizen Kane here). Mank features a collage of wonderful characters from the history of early Hollywood, including Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, David Selznick, Irving Thalberg, Orson Welles, and many others. Apparently, David Fincher had been intending to create this film for the better part of 20 years (his father initially wrote the script but has since passed away). Mank was shot in black and white, a nod to the films of the 1940s, and shooting was completed just prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The film was mostly shot around Los Angeles, and since Hearst Castle does not typically open its doors to film production crews, the Hearst Castle scenes were shot at the Huntington Estate and Library and around Malibu.
Gary Oldman stars as “Mank,” an alcoholic screenwriter in old Hollywood who was involved in numerous films (he was an uncredited writer for The Wizard of Oz, though he ultimately found the film distasteful). We first encounter Mank recovering from a broken leg at a facility in Victorville, California caused by a car accident. He receives a phone call from Orson Welles asking him to write a script for his next film -a unique opportunity as Welles has been given complete creative freedom by RKO for his film. Mank begins dictating a new idea to his secretary (played by Phil Collins’s daughter).
Meanwhile, we are offered a flashback to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Almost immediately we are dropped into a delightfully fictional scene in which Mank roams around a Paramount backlot conversing with David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, as well as Josef von Sternberg and Marion Davies. Mank then attends the birthday party of William Randolph Hearst at his famous hacienda in San Simeon, along with a panoply of old Hollywood stars. The group discusses politics, the rise of Nazi Germany (including some people’s reluctance to condemn Hitler), and also the rise of Upton Sinclair (amusingly played by Bill Nye). We see Mank’s sympathy for the working class while his employer, MGM, begins smearing the campaign of Upton Sinclair, and the propaganda is covertly funded by William Randolph Hearst. Mank’s alcoholism grows out of control, causing strain with his wife, and he bets against the Republican contender for California Governor (a bet he loses). And one of his colleagues, an MGM director who had produced propaganda films against Sinclair even though he personally supported him, commits suicide after learning he has Parkinson’s disease.
At the same time, Mank’s new script begins making the rounds and it causes much consternation around Hollywood. Mank drunkenly interrupts a party at Hearst Castle decrying Hearst. All of the guests leave the room until only Hearst and Mank are left bickering with one another. Even Marion Davies visits him and tries to persuade him against slandering Hearst (her beau), however Mank and Welles come to an agreement with Mank receiving co-credit for writing the film (initially the agreement was that Mank would not be credited) and the film is made. Welles and Mank receive an Oscar for their script. In a mock old-fashioned reel, cleverly shown at the close of the film, Mank minimizes the role Welles played in creating the script as he also dismisses the Academy Awards.
Mank is a truly brilliant film about one of the great epochs in the history of Hollywood -a perfect recipe to appeal to film buffs- however, there are a number of minor historical inaccuracies in the film, such as Mank’s political bet (he did not), the fact that he was inspired by Upton Sinclair to write the script (he was not), his meeting with Marion Davies to end production on the film (he did not), and his drunken outburst at Hearst Castle (this did not happen). While I loved this film, Mank is definitely one of David Fincher’s best, why deliberately offer misinformation? The true story is fascinating enough. I am always impressed when modern historically-inspired films at least attempt to stick to the truth. In the old debate between who deserves more credit for the Citizen Kane screenplay, Mank is assuredly on the side of Mankeiwicz, however that is not the central issue at hand in the film. Rather, Mank is concerned with leaving an impression of a man and his confrontation with the all-powerful Hollywood elite (namely William Randolph Hearst). Perhaps it can be seen as a commentary or a critique of the current power dynamic in Hollywood, in an age where cheap thrills and tired re-workings of the classics seem to sell screenplays, and also in the age of the “Me Too” movement which has highlighted so much rampant abuses of power throughout Hollywood (and the many people complicit in the villainy).
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross again deliver a fitting score for Mank (they also did the score for The Social Network). The film had a limited theatrical release in 2020 due to the pandemic but it was viewed widely on streaming services, particularly on Netflix.
I’m on the side of Welles as predominantly responsible in this debate…
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