The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - MANK | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - MANK

mank review
Screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz works on a script for a first time filmmaker named Orson Welles.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: David Fincher

Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance

mank poster

If Tim Burton had been honest in portraying the life of filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr, his 1994 biopic would be a very different movie. It would be a tragic tale of depression, alcoholism and a man's struggle to balance his lack of talent with his ambitions. Who knows, it could have been a great movie, but it would have been depressing as hell and I doubt I would have watched it a second time, whereas Ed Wood is a movie I return to every few years. With his biopic, Burton opted to print the legend, and gave us not the best movie about filmmaking, but one of the most charming. Burton captured the spirit of Wood's endeavour, forsaking its grim reality, and the film is a heartfelt tribute to a filmmaker who probably doesn't deserve such memorialising.

With Mank, his biopic of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, David Fincher refuses to print the legend. His movie isn't so much a love letter to classic Hollywood as a poison pen parcel. In Fincher's film, Hollywood is a town where dreams go to die, populated by egotistical backstabbers. By all accounts, that's how it was, but for all the nastiness that went on behind the scenes, they sure made some great movies.

mank review

You wouldn't know this from Fincher's film, as his characters are constantly badmouthing the movies, none more so than "Mank" himself. Played by Gary Oldman, who is for all intents and purposes regurgitating his entertaining Churchill shtick with an American accent, Mank is the classic embittered screenwriter who feels he's wasting his talent writing for the movies. That waste of talent helped give us the Marx Bros and the transition from sepia Kansas to technicolor Oz, two contributions curiously absent from Fincher's film. In an era when Americans were dying in the streets of starvation, Mank was pulling in $5,000 a week to write movies. Does he really need a major motion picture to fight his corner?

Apparently Fincher's father, Jack, thought so when he wrote the movie in the mid-90s (much of Mank, particularly an episode involving a suicidal director, suggests he was watching a lot of The Larry Sanders Show at the time). Two decades earlier, critic Pauline Kael had gone to bat for Mankiewicz in her controversial essay 'Raising Kane', which argued the case for the writer as the true author of a movie, which is a bit like hailing the girl with a pearl earring over the Dutch artist who painted her. I'm baffled as to why Mankiewicz is considered the unsung hero of Citizen Kane, when he's literally the only one of Welles's collaborators awarded with an Oscar for the movie. Surely cinematographer Gregg Toland, editor Robert Wise or art director Van Nese Polglase are more deserving of having the spotlight shone on them, though I doubt their biopics would be anymore interesting than Mank's.

mank review

Anyhow, Fincher Snr and Fincher Jnr have decided that Mank deserves his own movie. It's a shame they weren't able to come up with a story to centre him in. Mank is a directionless mess. It opens with the writer being sent to an out of the way cabin in rural California where he is given 90 days to knock out a script provisionally titled 'American', to be directed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke, who as with Oldman, is too old for the part), whose radio production of 'War of the Worlds' caused such a stir that RKO have awarded him with an unprecedented contract. Bedridden thanks to an automobile accident, Mank bickers with his prissy English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and Welles's right hand man, actor John Houseman (Sam Troughton), while sneaking gulps of whisky, aided by his German housekeeper (Leven Rambin). A subplot involving Rita's RAF pilot husband going missing at sea is treated in an unbelievably superfluous manner - neither Rita, Mank, nor the film itself seem bothered by the news. It's indicative of one of the movie's glaring issues - asking us to care about the relatively trivial matter of a screen credit while the Great Depression and a World War are raging outside the cloistered walls of entitled Hollywood.

By all accounts, Mankiewicz was one of the great wits of his time, so a movie in which he's bedridden for the entire running time could well be a riot. Fincher isn't known for his wit however, and his dourness translates to his titular protagonist, who comes off more like a drunken uncle telling dad jokes at a wedding rather than a knight of the Algonquin Round Table. To pep things up, the Finchers inject flashbacks to the previous decade, detailing Mank's friendship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, the movie's saving grace) and his role as jester at the court of publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst (a quietly sinister Charles Dance). Fincher's camera follows Mank for a whirlwind tour of the studio system, highlighting so many different bit players in the non-drama that entire scenes consist merely of famous Hollywood power-players being introduced simultaneously to the audience and Mank's younger brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey). There's a detour involving the 1934 California governor's race between Republican Frank Merriam and socialist writer Upton Sinclair that hints at a far more interesting movie than a biopic of a journeyman screenwriter, touching as it does on the birth of media manipulation and "fake news."

mank review

Fincher can't resist gimmicky aesthetic touches like fake cigarette burns and a sound design intended to make you believe you're watching the movie in a cavernous auditorium back in the 1940s. But with its widescreen picture and the telling lack of texture provided by modern digital video, it all comes across as an anachronistic skit, as though classic Hollywood is being parodied on a comedy sketch show. The backstage glimpses of 1940s Hollywood we get here feel as fake as whenever Lieutenant Columbo would accidentally wander onto a film set while investigating a killing in Tinseltown. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's liberally employed score is meant to mimic the big bands of the period, but at times it sounds more like those Charlie Calello records of the disco era.

Who is Mank for? It's certainly not aimed at the average subscriber to Netflix, a streaming service not exactly known for its preservation of classic cinema. For any cinephiles interested in the studio era and the various figures involved, it will come off as too inconsequential, a rushed dummies guide to the backlot that insists on throwing out the old stock Hollywood aphorisms we've all heard a million times before ("If you want to send a message, use Western Union", "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me" etc). For the uninitiated, Mank will inspire two hours of head scratching and prompts of "Who's this now, and why should I care?", and who can blame them? Fincher never gives us any motivation to care about Mank's reputation. Occasionally side characters assure us that Citizen Kane is the best script he's ever written, but we're never shown why they believe that to be the case. Fincher isn't a great filmmaker, the sort that can take a mediocre script and turn it into a masterpiece, which might explain his contempt for Welles. He falls into the category of a very good filmmaker who will guarantee you a great movie if you give him a great script. Maybe that's why he's shining a light on Mankiewicz, because he knows how much he owes his screenwriters.

 is on Netflix from December 4th.

2020 movie reviews