Produced by Netflix International Pictures, David Fincher’s biopic of the Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz dropped onto the apparently unstoppable streaming service earlier this month.
It’s no secret that Hollywood loves making movies about Hollywood. While it’s all too easy for those sorts of meta-movies to fall headlong into the trap of vigorously nodding to as many recognisable names and properties as possible, Mank seems to get away with much of its self-indulgence. That’s not to say that it doesn’t spend a significant portion of its runtime name-dropping long-forgotten Hollywood writers and executives, but it does so behind a wealth of impressive performances, compelling storytelling and romantic nostalgia.
The story behind the man behind the story of one of cinema’s greatest motion pictures, Mank is a must-see for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes politics of Hollywood in the 1930s.
While that subsection of people is undoubtedly a painfully narrow demographic, the truth of the matter is that Mank has an awful lot more to offer than simple historical re-enactment.
For starters, there’s Gary Oldman’s performance in the titular role as the sharp-witted, abrasive, alcoholic screenwriter, which was without a doubt the movie’s most compelling factor. Despite knowing from the start that Mank is deeply flawed, Oldman is able to sympathetically and convincingly portray a man who seems to revel in self-destruction.
Mank details the writer’s time working on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, dictated to his secretary as he recovers from a broken leg, but events of the previous decade are shown in flashback sequences to lend context to the script as it’s written.
It really can’t be stated what a beautiful movie Mank is. Black and white, with typewriter script outlining dates and locations of flashback scenes help to keep the viewer from becoming lost in the back and forth of Mank’s past and present, whilst simultaneously drawing comparisons between the movie Mankiewicz was writing and the one the viewer is watching. It was deftly done, and at no point does it feel belaboured, instead offering a clean, fresh experience that feels like a callback to a simpler time.
While Oldman’s might be the stand-out performance, he’s supported by a large cast of incredible performances, including Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, and Tom Burke in an uncanny portrayal of Orson Welles.
The only small criticism I can muster for Mank is that its first third is decidedly less enthralling than the rest of the movie. It’s something of a slow burn that builds to be a gripping tale, but to those uninitiated in the history of the movie industry, the opening scenes will more than likely be something of a slog to get through. If you can wrap your head around the various establishing nods to people who died long before you were born, however, you’re in for a real treat.
It’s a trip down memory lane to a place you’ve never been before, and while it was done with all the knowledge and expertise of a modern movie studio, you’ll still find yourself with something of a taste for the productions of Old Hollywood and delving into cinema’s earlier years.
Summary: Mank might not quite be the level of high art it seemingly claims to be, but it’s an enjoyable and interesting exploration of the conception of one of the most well-known films ever made, as well as a look at the fledgling years of modern motion pictures.