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Why Mank (2020) Is So Much Better Than You've Probably Heard

Clyde Hanna, 7th December 2021

When it was released in 2020 on Netflix, audiences were divided on this latest film by David Fincher, a director known for his excellently stylised ventures into the drama/thriller genre with films like Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2009) and Gone Girl (2014) (although my personal favourite among his filmography is still 2010’s The Social Network for all the possible reasons). Mank, written by his late father Jack Fincher, is yet another of the director’s triumphs, garnering much critical acclaim and winning 2 Academy Awards the following year… and yet it was clear that even some of the most die-hard Fincher fans were disappointed by this one. I saw it, with lower expectations than I’d have liked to have, but altogether keeping an open mind, and I thought it was brilliant. The film tells the real story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman in one of his absolute best roles, as he obtains inspiration from his classic Hollywood surroundings and later writes Citizen Kane (1941) based on the many experiences we got to witness along with him.

Now here's the thing: I could definitely see where Mank didn’t work for many people, and so I’ll start off by pointing out some of the film’s flaws, even if in some cases I personally don’t think they affected the film. First of all, with a runtime of over 2 hours, many people would likely find this film extremely boring, had they not been fully immersed in the story. It’s an understandable thing — there were some scenes I wouldn’t have missed if they had been cut out — and it does affect the pacing slightly.

This all depends on the second thing I’d like to point out, which is the historical setting. Mank is deeply rooted in late-1930s Hollywood, and it is truly fascinating to see this world-weary screenwriter interact with his own time period in a way similar to how we ourselves might do — with a bit too much cynicism for others’ taste. There is a great scene in the film where Mank is invited to a party hosted by none other than the inspiration for Citizen Kane himself, William Randolph Hearst, played excellently by Charles Dance. In this scene, several characters discuss the rise of Nazi Germany, seemingly dismissing it as unimportant and not a real threat, but we as the audience know the events that will play out in history, and so too does Mank, who proceeds to wittily give his opinion on the matter, throwing not-so-subtle jabs at Hearst and stirring conflict in the room (not for the last time). My point in all this is how important historical context is to the enjoyment of this film, but the required knowledge of golden-age Hollywood, World War II, and the origin of Citizen Kane can be a bit overwhelming to some. At times I found myself lost in the intriguing details and historical intricacy of this film, and yet I wanted to see more.

The third and final issue I believe many people had with Mank was the portrayal of Citizen Kane director Orson Welles, played by Tom Burke, as young, naïve, and controlling, which makes for good stakes in the film but was not the idea of him that so many people have had since Citizen Kane’s release. Perhaps it was my limited knowledge of Welles, but this aspect didn’t bother me at all.

Now aside from the historical intrigue, there were multiple reasons why I liked this film so much. For instance, the black-and-white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt is absolutely stunning, and it immerses you in the time period so effectively that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it was made in 2020 when you’re halfway through it. The same goes for the production design, costumes, hair and makeup, all of which are equally amazing. I would also point out the score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (whose collaborations on The Social Network and HBO's 2019 series Watchmen are pure brilliance). The music in Mank transports us to this entirely different world, and it is so impressive how the two composers have managed to shift between genres throughout Fincher's filmography.

But at the very core of this film we have Gary Oldman, and his chemistry with Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies is phenomenal in every scene. To me, this was not a film about the making of Citizen Kane — in fact it was much more focused on Mank himself, and the events that led him to write the screenplay based on what he observed in William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. The film is split into two different storylines at separate points in time: one showcasing Mank’s extravagant lifestyle and the other with him injured in bed writing Citizen Kane on a demanding deadline. By the end of the film, these storylines collide in such a fascinating way, culminating in one of the best scenes of 2020, in my opinion: when a very drunk Mank tells a story to Hearst, Marion, and a multitude of other aristocrats at the dinner table — a heartbreakingly told story that would become the groundwork for Citizen Kane — which Hearst takes particular offence to.

IN SUMMARY: This film is a true character study, directed masterfully by David Fincher. It is poetic, thematically relevant, and meaningful in all the right ways, and I believe it is far too underappreciated. Mank, along with Another Round and Sound of Metal, was among my favourite films of 2020, and I strongly recommend giving it a chance.

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