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Mank movie review: David Fincher film revels in the grey

Mank movie review: Mank captures the life of Herman Mankiewicz between essentially 1933 and 1940, when America was in the midst of the Depression and watching uneasily, but from far, the gathering clouds of World War II.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer |
Updated: December 5, 2020 8:48:39 am
MankMank is streaming on Netflix. (Photo: Netflix)

Mank movie cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Sam Troughton, Tuppence Middleton
Mank movie director: David Fincher
Mank movie rating: Four stars

In this era of black and white, Mank revels in the grey, literally. Made by Fincher from a screenplay by his father Jack Fincher, on the making of Citizen Kane — a film often voted as among the greatest of all time — it is named after the man who may have written that movie all by himself, and seen all the limelight go to Orson Welles. However, for all his ideals, principles, wit and scorn at Hollywood, Herman Mankiewicz, or Mank, is a man who has built his success on the showbiz’s same flinty principles — and somewhere deep inside, in his booze-addled stupor, realises it. The film does him, Hollywood, and William Randolph Hearst on whom Citizen Kane’s protagonist was largely based, supreme justice by acknowledging and capturing this complexity.

A newspaper baron with journals thriving in scandals and a career prospering by virtue of political dalliances (Hearst, played by the always commanding Dance). A studio owner whose only god is money (Pelphrey, great as MGM’s Louis B Meyer). An actress reduced in popular imagination to a dumb mistress, who can be heartbreakingly smart and honest (Seyfried luminous as Hearst’s love Marion Davies). A long-suffering wife whose love and devotion cut through Mank’s thick skin (Middleton as Sara). And Mank himself, self-pitying, self-destroying, desperate and delightful, “a rat caught in its own trap” (Oldman, in another remarkable performance). Welles, played by British actor Tom Burke, is more of a presence than an actual character, the wunderkind from the East, the outsider who threatens to pull down the scaffolding on which rests Hollywood’s exclusive club.

Mank captures the life of Mankiewicz between essentially 1933 and 1940, when America was in the midst of the Depression and watching uneasily, but from far, the gathering clouds of World War II. There is another presence that Fincher does well to focus on in his telling of the making of Citizen Kane, the candidacy of Left-leaning Upton Sinclair for the governorship of California, which sees the tinsel town gang up against him. As Sinclair is portrayed as promoting “anti-American” values, with MGM lending its might to a campaign that would now be described as fake news, Mank is forced to confront his own compromises and little lies.

In a marvellous scene, Dance’s Hearst recounts Oldman’s Mank the “parable of the organ grinder’s monkey”, just after the latter has humiliated himself and Hearst in a drunken rant about the sold idealism of the newspaper baron. While the monkey thinks it is him running the show, Hearst reminds Mank, he has to “dance”, “every time”, the music plays.

That realisation is a glimpse of the bitterness that would eventually lead Mank to finding himself jobless in Hollywood, particularly after his decision to take on Hearst with Welles’ backing. It would also lead him to Citizen Kane — while on the bed with a broken leg, away from friends and family and fighting for a drink despite alcohol slowly claiming him — as well as his only Oscar.

As Mank explains it to a friend, “We have got a huge responsibility, to people in the dark willingly checking their disbelief at the door.”

Mank is streaming on Netflix.

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