Mank ★★★★

Herman J. Mankiewicz began as a writer on the East Coast, a drama critic and playwright. But he was one of the first to migrate West when Hollywood's Dream Factory began churning out content and needed grist for the mill (metaphors properly mixed), during the Silent Era. When movies began to talk, they needed gifted writers more than ever and Mankiewicz made uncredited contributions to everything from Marx Brothers comedies to "The Wizard of Oz".

Perhaps it was his ability to do uncredited writing without complaint (for Paramount and then MGM) that brought Orson Welles calling upon Mankiewicz (known to most as "Mank") when Welles was lured to Hollywood by RKO pictures to revitalize their output. Welles was the wunderkind of the Radio world and every American knew his name and especially his voice. Welles wanted a hand writing his first, groundbreaking motion picture...but he didn't particularly want anyone to know about it.

"Mank" finds Gary Oldman playing Herman Mankiewicz as he recovers from a car accident that has broken his leg. Welles is trying to keep Mank sober while he secretly (three hours north of Hollywood, hopefully where no one will know what he's up to) cranks out the script for Welles's breakthrough in sixty days. Mank is an alcoholic, as well as a man who has been wrung through the Hollywood machine for over a decade and was a frequent guest at the lavish dinner parties of noted newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst. He draws upon his experiences in the Hurst mansion for inspiration in writing "Citizen Kane", a thinly-veiled attack on the man with whom Mank has a complicated relationship. But, like Dewey Cox in "Walk Hard", Mank has to reflect on his entire life when he writes. Therefore "Mank" flashes back to Mank's entire Hollywood gauntlet with copious amounts of drinking and occasional bursts of writing and some political content for good measure.

"Mank" strives for authenticity to the time period and Mankiewicz's life but there are a few moments that feel like bullshit to me. For example: there's an early pitch meeting set in 1930 where Mank and his fellow writers reference "Wolf Man" and "Frankenstein" when pitching a monster movie for Josef Von Sternberg. The only problem is that "Frankenstein" wouldn't be a motion picture for two more years, and for Universal not Paramount where this scene is set, and "Wolf Man" wasn't even a novel and wouldn't exist until the early 1940s. I know this is a true nitpick, but it threw me out of the film for a few minutes. The pacing and structure of the first act rankled me for some reason too. I'm getting kind of annoyed with films that flit around within their own timeline. It's not as brilliant as most directors think it is. Yes, I know this is supposed to mirror the structure of "Kane" and so forth, and it's not too confusing because the screenwriting format text informs us that these segments are flashbacks. I guess I'm just getting tired of that gimmick. Anyway, things like that stuck in my craw but they probably won't bother the average movie watcher.

But will the average movie watcher give a shit about "Mank"? Probably not. Then again, that's not who this film is for. It's a love letter to/expose of old Hollywood and an act of magnificent trolling to people who belong to the cult of Orson Welles. Many people think Orson Welles is the ultimate film genius. I think he was definitely talented, but that the talent went to his head almost immediately (then again, if people started telling me I was a genius at the age of 24 I would probably believe I was a film god too) and he kind of sabotaged himself with ballooning budgets and egocentric activities. I believe that Orson's work on "Citizen Kane" was great. But I can also easily believe that he had crucial help in that regard from people like Toland, Herrman, Robert Wise and Mankiewicz. Film is a collaborative process. Everyone brings a crucial ingredient to the table. Of course, most of those who love Welles most also subscribe to the auteur theory that the director is the sole author of the film. The truth is probably somewhere in between, where everyone contributes an ingredient or five and the director has the ultimate say in how it all comes together.

Anyway, Fincher's film is a pretty gripping look at Old Hollywood that finds an ideal subject in Mank, who was present for a large part of Old Hollywood's Golden Age and was a contributing factor to its "goldness". Oldman is too old for the part, but I think he works in the role nonetheless because Mank probably looked a lot older than he was due to the abuse he was inflicting upon his liver. Amanda Seyfried gives a luminous and engaging performance as Marion Davies, Arliss Howard is a true piece of shit as Louie B. Mayer (that sentence is meant as a compliment) and Charles Dance is a fucking lord as Hearst, just as he is in most things. The script and direction are sturdy and keep things flowing nicely, culminating in a scorching dinner party sequence, and all of the various production elements do their jobs well (the score sounds nothing like Reznor and Ross's other work, but it's still great). This doesn't feel like any of Fincher's other films, which might account for its lukewarm reception here, but I like seeing a talented filmmaker stretch his abilities and explore new realms, which Fincher does here with panache.

"Mank" is a great film about a flawed man (the alcoholic writer trope is an absolute cliche...but it's also true in a lot of cases) and a fascinating bygone era. It's still politically and artistically relevant to our current age as well, which is just icing on the cake.

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