Review: Mank – Not So Black and White
“Keep your mouth shut and watch us for your cue, okay?”, screenwriter Ben Hecht tells Charlie Lederer, the newest addition to his Hollywood brain pool. Just in this moment, a black mark appears on the upper right corner of the screen. When movies are projected on physical film, these cues alert the projectionist that a change of reels is about to happen, one bulky, whirring projector taking over from another. It’s not the first time that David Fincher has pointed out these artifacts of analog filmmaking in one of his films; an entire scene in Fight Club is built around Edward Norton and Brad Pitt explaining the process of showing a 35mm film. But the scene above is not shown in cinemas, at least not in many: even before the current pandemic, Fincher’s newest film Mank was headed straight to streaming thanks to its production company, Netflix. Additionally, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot Mank on roughed-up yet clearly recognizable digital video. So rather than a technical necessity, the reel mark becomes one of many ways in which Mank becomes a constant back and forth between form and function. It is a film that draws attention to its medium and the politics thereof, showing surprising empathy for those caught in the gears of the filmmaking machine. Yet at the same time, Fincher focusses so sharply on the character at the movie’s center that its edges often become blurry, at the expense of perhaps more interesting material.
In 1930s Hollywood, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a somewhat outlandish figure. He is part of an in-demand writing circle, called upon by studio heads Brian O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind, Rebecca) and Louis B. Mayer (the second M in MGM) alike, and his brother Joseph is on the rise as a promising writer in his own right. Yet at the same time, thanks largely to his constant gambling, drinking, and insufferably acerbic wit, “Mank” more than once ends up shooting himself in the foot just as he gets it in the door. A friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), actress and daughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, promises connections both personal and professional, but Mank is too busy standing in his own way to capitalize on it. That is, until a few years later, when bedridden and washed-up Mank is offered a lucrative deal to write a screenplay for an up-and-coming prodigy from New York, under the condition that he keep his name off the final product. The wunderkind is Orson Welles, and the screenplay ends up being Citizen Kane.
Kane, often hailed as the greatest film of all time, is mostly associated with Welles, who in addition to directing and starring in it also shares screenwriting credit with Mankiewicz. Film critic Pauline Kael opined in the 1970s that Mankiewicz alone deserved the laurels; this claim, while now largely regarded as unfounded and disregarding Welles’ contributions to the screenplay, formed the basis for Mank, written by Fincher’s later father Jack. It is not the first time that the director has taken a rather liberal approach to facts for dramatic effect. The Social Network’s veracity is widely disputed, but the movie is arguably better for it, sharpening characters and motivations into something that is undeniably gripping as drama if not as historical document. Mank is trickier in that regard. Not necessarily for its treatment of Welles, who, played by a well-cast Tom Burke, looms over the events but is never demonized even in moments where the camera shows him towering over Mankiewicz. Instead, Fincher’s film–much like the movie that inspired it–takes a swing at politics in a way that is at once relevant und frustratingly opaque.
Often read as a commentary on the role of media in relationship between power and propaganda, Citizen Kane sees its protagonist’s political career destroyed when his competitor leaks information about Kane’s extramarital affair. Mank picks up on these themes and expands on them through less veiled references to actual events. California’s 1934 gubernatorial election becomes a large turning point for the story when Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair is defeated thanks in part to Hearst and Mayer’s influence. Mank seems disgusted by the establishment’s refusal to give a progressive candidate a fair chance, reminding them to “count every vote” when they celebrate prematurely. Yet his motivations are fuzzy and vague here: is it the higher-ups’ actual policies he detests, or is he simply determined to contrarianism and opposition to “the man”? Mank is quick to wittily shoot down anyone he considers a bullshitter or naïve, but what are his own positions? It is noteworthy that Mank does engage with politics more than its main character does, showing how movies can serve as propaganda and even in the hands of supposedly idealistic people more often than not simply uphold the status quo. (Think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that for all its attempts at diversifying its cast and crew, sometimes striking gold like with Black Panther, has close financial and creative ties to the US military. Think the depiction of police in popular media. Netflix itself has often shied away from rocking the boat, from censoring episodes of Patriot Act to quietly cancelling its more diverse shows during the pandemic.)
It is here where Mank most cleverly utilizes its form. Shot in gorgeous, surprisingly grainy black and white, it also features a period-accurate score by Fincher’s resident composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The duo trade their usual icy ambiance for a more directly dramatic orchestral soundscape that in its swells and stings beautifully highlights the film’s monaural mix. Some scenes come tantalizingly close to a full-on homage to Kane and other films of its era, shooting from stark, expressionistic angles and playing out drama in well-staged tableaus. These references often come in moments of performance or theatre, especially when Mayer addresses his workforce to announce pay cuts without mentioning whether those apply to himself. After the camera spends much of the scene looking down on him from a beautiful Dutch angle, the studio head leaves the stage only to ask his assistant, “How did I do?”. Other sequences mimic the style of newsreels, directly acknowledging that the manufacturing of opinion that Mank engages in on Mankiewicz’s behalf is not so different from the political op-eds that shoot down Sinclair’s campaign. Similarly, through directly portraying Mank’s relationships with the people that inspired his screenplay newly contextualizes Citizen Kane as not only a formal pioneer, but as a clever piece of political commentary. These glimpses of a more thoroughly and explicitly political film make it all the more frustrating when Fincher fails to fully explore them.
The director seems much more interested in the aspect of Mank that he probably most closely relates to. Fincher, no stranger to troubled productions and known for his scathing bluntness in interviews, shows more empathy for Mankiewicz than a viewer familiar with, say, Gone Girl might expect. Indeed, many moments of Mank embarrassing himself are followed by him regretting those very actions, and underneath the cynically aloof persona, we get glimpses of someone just desperate to stay in a position where he can do the thing he loves. This is further complicated by conversations with his brother Joseph who urges him to abandon Kane for more lucrative studio work; while Herman refuses, the stubbornness is tinged with the knowledge that he is missing out on easier, more steady jobs. For someone like Fincher whose failed and unrealized projects are enough to warrant an entire Wikipedia page and who often takes five or six years off between movies rather than make quick cash grabs, this must ring especially true. Mank, after all, is the lens through which the entire story is refracted; all of the film’s scenes feature the character and only a handful of shots leave his perspective. This laser-sharp focus on one central figure gives the film the thematic coherence that marks all of Fincher’s work; at the same time however, it also leads to the problems described above. Additionally, the film runs into many distracting tropes, with the female characters around appearing peripheral rather than fully realized. This is true for many of the male players as well, but seems more egregious considering how closely the movie flirts with forgiving the annoying, toxic or aggressive artist when considering their artistic achievements. (It should be noted here that Gary Oldman has been repeatedly accused of domestic abuse and while none of them have been proven, the sad parallel here leaves a sour taste.)
While much of this review has focused on the thematic aspects of Mank, it would be a mistake not to mention the wonderful cast. Oldman’s main role seems strange at first: a man in his 60s playing someone twenty years his junior, in a performance that seems more broadly, loosely comedic than Fincher’s precise style and ruthless repetition of takes usually allows for. But these apparent contradictions end up working in Mank’s (and Mank’s) favor, with the character always seeming like an outcast and his outbursts of acidic rage being undercut by a sense of tragic comedy. It also helps that, while the actor gained a noticeable amount of weight for the role, Oldman is not plastered with prosthetic make-up, a staple of many biopics. Instead, we catch every muttering to himself, every sarcastic twitch of the mouth, and every regretful glance when he inevitably hurts someone close to him. More fine-tuned is Amanda Seyfried as Mank’s “platonic affair” Marion, making a lasting impression in a role that, on paper, seems rather reductive. With an affected ditziness that belies world-weary intelligence underneath, Seyfried fully capitalizes on the way she is often misconstrued. Her and Oldman’s scenes are surprisingly tender, and for all the potential creepiness of the age difference, neither of them hits a wrong note. Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton make the most of largely thankless roles as Mank’s assistant and wife, respectively, with Collins striking a balance between her character’s English inflection and the period-accurate Transatlantic Accent that further cements the film’s flair. All the antagonistic studio bosses are spot-on, as are Mank’s screenwriter buddies; meanwhile, Charles Dance delivers what can only be described as the Charles Dance Special in his few scenes as Hearst, the actor’s trademark iciness offset by an undeniable charisma. Demagogues charm as much as they harm, and Dance’s performance walks that line beautifully and subtly.
It is hard to say at this point what place Mank will take in the whole of Fincher’s filmography. He is my favorite filmmaker, I have written about what I consider to be his masterpiece before, and this movie promises a thematic maturity (if not clarity or courage) that is as satisfying as his formal rigor. At the same time, Mank frustrates much in the same way that Joker did earlier this year, gesturing towards larger themes before pulling its hand away at the very last second. That comparison may seem drastic as Mank is better on every level and less exploitative or pretentious than that film. But where Fincher previously paired his timelier themes with a perfectionism that didn’t allow for any distractions (or simply eschewed those higher ambitions in favor of pure genre thrills), Mank, for all its merits, doesn’t quite stick the landing. Much like the film’s cinematography, both Mank and Mank have a lot of grey areas – it’s not so black and white after all.
Mank is streaming on Netflix now. Claudius was listening to Inner Song by Kelly Lee Owens and 10 Years Gone by Deafheaven while writing this review.