Review: ‘Mank,’ starring Gary Oldman

February 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in “Mank” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Mank”

Directed by David Fincher

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1930 to 1942 in Southern California, the dramatic film “Mank” features an all-white cast of characters who are are involved in some way in the movie industry.

Culture Clash: Alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz has personal and professional conflicts while trying to complete the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, the 1941 classic film directed by and starring Orson Welles.

Culture Audience: “Mank” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic depictions of Hollywood film history from the 1930s and 1940s.

Tom Burke in “Mank” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

A lot of visual flair, technical precision and above-average acting went into the creation of the dramatic film “Mank” (directed by David Fincher and written by his late father Jack Fincher), but it’s the type of movie that will still leave some viewers cold. The movie certainly has compelling performances, snappy dialogue and impressive cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt. “Mank” is a feast for cinephiles who appreciate the art that came from the Golden Age of Hollywood. But “Mank” is a famine for people who want to see movie characters with relatable emotions that are not motivated by greed or ruthless ambition.

Any disdain or apathy for “Mank” might come from people who don’t care about what the movie industry was like in 1930s or 1940s, or who don’t want to be reminded of how racially segregated America was back then. And people could also be turned off from “Mank” because they don’t want to see this part of American history glorified in a movie that recreates the racist and sexist bubble of Hollywood willing to give an alcoholic, difficult screenwriter so many chances to work on prestige projects because of his white male privilege. These are all valid reasons for people not to like “Mank,” which doesn’t try to rewrite history, but the movie also doesn’t try to make any insightful commentary on the rampant racism and sexism in Hollywood and society at large that didn’t allow anyone but white men to be the top filmmakers during this era.

“Mank” is filmed in black-and-white and in a style that emulates exactly how a biographical film about Mankiewicz would have been made in the 1940s. That’s the decade when Mank (who died in 1953, at the age of 55) was at the height of his career, as the co-writer of director Orson Welles’ classic 1941 drama “Citizen Kane,” which is often named in film historians’ lists as the best movie of all time. The “Citizen Kane” original screenplay, which was loosely based on the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was the only Academy Award won by the movie, which was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor. (Welles starred in the film as Kane.)

The Best Original Screenplay prize for “Citizen Kane” was also the only Academy Award won by Mankiewicz and Welles, who died in 1985, at the age 70. “Mank” essentially tells the story of the tortuous process of getting the screenplay completed and the clashes over creative control. It’s a story that could apply to how numerous other movies have been made under similar circumstances, but “Citizen Kane” just happens to be what many film experts consider to be a masterpiece.

“Mank” depicts Mank (played by Gary Oldman) as a talented and experienced screenwriter but also a hardcore alcoholic. He’s under pressure to finish the “Citizen Kane” screenplay by his deadline. However, his alcoholism and his conflicts with Welles threaten to derail the project. At first, Mank was willing to give full screenwriter credit to Welles for “Citizen Kane.” Much of “Mank” is about how and why Mank changed his mind and demanded co-writing credit.

The opening scene of “Mank” shows Mank checking in as a guest at the North Verde Ranch in Victorville, California, in 1940. His intent is to retreat to the ranch so that he can finish the “Citizen Kane” screenplay in relative solitude. Welles (played by Tom Burke) has given Mank a deadline to finish the screenplay in 60 days. Even though Mank is told that North Verde is a “dry ranch” (no alcohol is allowed), that doesn’t stop Mank from having a suitcase full of liquor delivered to his room.

Mank’s discomfort isn’t only because he’s told that the ranch has a ban on alcohol. He also has to use crutches, because he broke his right leg in a car accident. He’s introduced to the female typist who will be working with him: A British immigrant named Rita Alexander (played Lily Collins), who tells Mank that her husband (who’s not in the movie) flies Firebird planes for the Royal Air Force. Rita’s character, like all the female characters in “Mank,” are written to have only one purpose in the film: to be dutiful, passive, and willing to please the men.

Mank’s long-suffering wife Sara Mankiewicz (played by Tuppence Middleton) sometimes talks some sass to her philandering, hard-drinking husband. But ultimately, she caves in to societal pressure to be a wife who’s completely dependent on her husband. Later in the movie, Mank becomes infatuated with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried), a famous actress who is all too aware that her good looks and her connection to Hearst are the main reasons why her acting career is thriving.

In an early scene in the movie, Sara is helping a very drunk Mank get into bed. She mentions their past courtship of him being a war correspondent who “ruined” her home. It’s a reference to when Mank worked for the American Red Cross News Service in Paris in 1919 and 1920, the year that he and Sara were married. There are not-so-subtle hints in Mank’s interactions with Sara that Sara knew she was marrying a “bad boy” and made the mistake of thinking that he would change after they got married.

In “Mank,” he spends more time with Davies than he does with his wife and children. It’s a commentary on what the filmmakers think his priorities were at the time. Davies is portrayed as a coquettish charmer who isn’t passionately in love with Hearst (played by Charles Dance), but she’s fond enough of him to let him treat her like his trophy girlfriend so that she can enjoy all the benefits that come with it.

Davies was born to a working-class family in Brooklyn, New York, so Seyfried really plays up these roots with a heavy Brooklyn accent in “Mank.” In real life, by all accounts, Davies had lost her Brooklyn accent by the time she became a Hollywood actress. But the accent that the Davies character has in “Mank” is meant to put a lot of emphasis on the fact that she came from a working-class background and she now hobnobs with the rich and famous.

The Brooklyn accent is also apparently an excuse for the “Mank” screenplay to have Mank utter a cheesy line of dialogue when he’s flirting with Davies. Mank sees her at a birthday party for actor John Gilbert (played by Nick Job), and Davies begins telling Mank some stories about when she used to live in Brooklyn. Mank says in a remark dripping with a bad pun/double entendre: “Your Flatbush is showing.” Mank’s lusty facial expression and tone of his voice leave no doubt what he meant by that comment.

In a scene that’s a flashback to 1930, “Mank” shows the misogyny of treating women only as sex objects. The scene takes place in a writer’s room. In the room are Mank, his younger brother Joe Mankiewicz (played by Tom Pelphrey), George Kaufman (played by Adam Shapiro), Sidney Pearlman (played by Jack Romano), Charles MacArthur (played by John Churchill), Shelly Metcalf (played by Jamie McShane) and Ben Hecht (played by Jeff Harms).

There’s a secretary in the room too, but she’s topless, except for pasties covering her nipples. It’s obvious that she’s expected to look this way and to do things such as sit on a man’s lap when he tells her to do it. The men act as if it’s perfectly normal for a woman to be treated this way in a work environment.

It’s easy to see that the screenplay for “Mank” did not want to rely on showing repetitious scenes of a drunken Mank struggling to finish the “Citizen Kane” screenplay on time because he procrastinates. These types of scenes are in the movie, but at a bare minimum. The movie is filled with flashbacks of how he got to know Davies and Hearst and how Mank was tentatively invited into their social circle. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a big costume dinner party scene where, in true Mank fashion, he shows up very drunk. And you can imagine what happens.

If Hearst was the inspiration for “Citizen Kane,” then Welles was the movie’s visionary creative leader. But the person who had the most influence on Mank’s career was MGM Studios co-founder Louis B. Mayer (played by Arliss Howard), who at times was like a exasperated mentor to Mank, if you believe what’s presented to this movie. Mank spends more time on screen with Mayer than he does with Welles.

The movie has several flashbacks to how Mank’s business relationship with Mayer evolved. In a scene that takes place in 1934, Mank introduces Joe to Mayer, who quips: “We only have one star here: Leo the Lion [the MGM mascot]. Many stars forget that. And now, they twinkle elsewhere.”

Mayer is depicted as someone who’s a control freak and only concerned about himself, but is skilled at deceiving people into thinking he has their best interests at heart. This duplicitous nature is shown in a scene, also in 1934, where Mayer is on stage at an auditorium and speaking to an assembly of MGM employees. Mayer explains that the Great Depression has negatively impacted the movie industry. And he tells the employees that he needs them to volunteer to take a 50% pay cut for eight weeks, for the good of the company.

At first, the MGM employees are angry with the news that their salaries will be reduced. Mayer tells them the other option would be to make staff layoffs. And he assures the employees that if they take the pay cut, when President Franklin Roosevelt opens the banks again, Mayer promises that he will pay all of the employees the compensation that they lost out on during this eight-week period.

The employees go from a potentially angry crowd to cheering for Mayer, who’s convinced them that he’s a compassionate boss who really cares about them. Mank is watching this from the wings of the stage and somewhat awed at how Mayer was able to turn the situation around so quickly. But when Mayer leaves the stage, he tells Mank that the speech was all for show and that he has no intention of making the salary reimbursement that he promised on stage.

As a way to seemingly fill up time in this 131-minute movie, “Mank” also takes a few detours into politics, with an entire subplot of how Mank was perceived as a Socialist and how it affected his career. The movie shows that Mank refused to sign an agreement stating that he would never join a writer’s union. The union was opposed by Mayer and MGM head of production Irving Thalberg (played by Ferdinand Kingsley), who put pressure on Mank to side with MGM. The way it’s shown in “Mank,” Thalberg was ready to accuse Mank of being a Communist if Mank didn’t comply with what MGM wanted.

And as if to make it abundantly clear that Mank was a left-wing liberal, there are some unnecessary scenes of him getting caught up on in the 1934 election for California’s governor. The race came down to conservative Republican Frank Merriam versus liberal Democrat (and former Socialist Party member) Upton Sinclair. Mank refuses Thalberg’s demand to contribute to MGM’s anti-Sinclair fund, Thalberg says in a threatening tone: “I hate to think what L.B. [Louis B. Mayer] might do if he finds out that you’re the only holdout.”

Mank replies defiantly, “You don’t need my donation! You don’t need anybody’s donation. You can make the world swear that King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford is a virgin at 40, yet you can’t convince starving Californians that a turncoat Socialist is a menace to everything they hold dear. You’re barely trying.” Mank then walks out of Thalberg’s office like a future rapper who just dropped the mic.

On election night at the Trocadero nightclub, where a crowd is gathered to listen to the election results, a drunken Mank makes a $24,000 bet on who will win. It’s the kind of money that he knows could ruin him financially, but he bets it all anyway. Viewers of this movie who know who won the election in real life can easily guess which of the candidates got Mank’s support and how this scene ends.

There’s a minor subplot of how his younger brother Joe feels overshadowed by Mank. Joe is also the more cautious brother who expresses concerns to Mank about the repercussions that Mank will get from Hearst over the “Citizen Kane” screenplay. “Self-preservation is not politics,” warns Joe. Mank doesn’t seem to care. He replies, “I’m washed up, Joe. I have been for years.”

Despite this scene where the Mankiewicz brothers have this candid talk, the brotherly dynamic is often shunted aside, since this movie is just what the title says it is: It’s ultimately all about Mank. His wife is treated as a marginal character, while his children Don and Johanna have no bearing on the plot and are briefly in the movie.

Throughout the movie, Mank seems proud of his disruptive reputation, with the type of bravado of someone who knows he is not the target of racism and sexism. Mank was Jewish, but it’s implied throughout the story that because most of the major Hollywood studios at the time were owned by Jewish men, Mank didn’t get the type of anti-Semitism that he would’ve gotten if he worked in an industry that wasn’t controlled at the time by people who weren’t Jewish.

The movie is intent on making Mank look like a lovable rogue, without any real examination of how his awful actions might have damaged other people. “Mank” gives him somewhat of a “see, he’s not that bad” redemption arc when it’s revealed that he did an act of kindness to help his German immigrant employee named Fraulein Freda (played by Monika Grossman) by sponsoring her German family to live in the United States. When typist Rita is ready to quit in frustration over Mank’s heavy drinking, Freda tells her about Mank’s immigration assistance and that he’s a “good man.”

However, it can be argued that an act of kindness is truly noble when the person committing the act won’t get anything out of it in return. Would Mank have gone to the trouble of helping Freda if she didn’t work for him and if he didn’t need to use her services in some way? Viewers can make up their own minds about Mank’s character by other actions he takes in the movie.

Although “Mank” doesn’t goes as far to say that Mank and Davies had a sexual affair, the movie shows that the two did have some kind of intimate emotional affair. After all, Davies is shown as the one who gave Mank a lot of personal information about Hearst that ended up being used for the Kane character in “Citizen Kane.” As for why Sara stayed married to Mank, she tells him what she thinks of their marriage: “It’s never boring. Exhausting? Yes.”

People watching “Mank” might be surprised by how the character of Welles doesn’t have as much screen time as expected for a movie about the pre-production of “Citizen Kane.” And it’s too bad that Welles is only in the movie for about 15 minutes, because the showdown between Welles and Mank is one of the best scenes in the film. The two men have an explosive argument when Mank tells Welles that he wants co-writing credit for the screenplay.

It’s a battle of egos and power. Welles was a hotshot filmmaker at age 24 when he was given complete creative control over “Citizen Kane” in his contract with RKO Pictures. And he was very arrogant about it, by all accounts. Mank, who was 42 or 43 when he completed the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, had the advantage of being more experienced in Hollywood.

Mank declares to Welles during their argument: “I may be a loose cannon, but you, my friend, are the outsider.” Welles shouts back: “Who’s producing this picture? Directing in it? Starring in it?”

One of the better aspects of “Mank” is it that perfectly captures the tone, pace and voice cadence of movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It looks like a movie that could have been made back then, except the pristine technical aspects (such as the film editing) make it clear that the movie benefited from modern technology. “Mank” uses an eye-catching technique of identifying the year and location of each new scene by showing this information on screen as typing on a paper script with one of the era’s typewriters.

“Mank” director Fincher has immense talent for his attention to detail, when it comes to production design, costume design, a film’s visuals and getting the best that he can out of the cast members in the movie. Those superb qualities make “Mank” worth watching for people who want to immerse themselves in Old Hollywood. However, many of Fincher’s films have main characters who are selfish and/or obsessive to the point where much of their humanity is lost. And that is one of the main reasons why some people will want to avoid watching “Mank.”

Netflix released “Mank” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020. The movie premiered on Netflix on December 4, 2020.