Mank (2020). Film review of the Hollywood biopic about the writing of Citizen Kane

Mank (2020) film Gary Oldman


star rating 3 out of 5 worth watching

Film review by Jason Day of Mank, the 2020 Hollywood biopic about the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he tries to finish the screenplay to the classic and – for some – greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane (1941). Starring Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, directed by David Fincher.

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The story behind the writing of Citizen Kane (1941), a movie regularly cited as one of the best if not the best films ever made. The script was co-authored by writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. Gary Oldman plays ‘Mank’, Tom Burke plays Welles and Amanda Seyfried plays Marion Davies, the real-life silent movie star who was the lover of the man the Kane character in the film was based on.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

The making of and story behind Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s classic tale of man corrupted by greed Citizen Kane (1941) is hardly new ground for filmmakers.

The PBS documentary The Battle of Citizen Kane (1996) and RKO 281 (1999) covered similar territory, the fight between Welles and Kane’s rather obvious subject matter, media magnate William Randolph Hearst. There has also been a plethora of academic dissection and discussion about the film itself (noted critic Pauline Kael’s ‘Raising Kane’ was one of the first to espouse Mankiewicz’s contribution to the final film).

Until 2012, it was voted the best movie of all time according to the influential cinema publication ‘Sight and Sound’ (the most recent poll saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958 pip it at the post).

My point here is: do we really need another movie/documentary about Citizen Kane? Don’t we know all of this or can’t we access it easily enough if we don’t?

Still, it could be said that each new generation calls for a new version of a tale and it’s refreshing to concentrate on Mankiewicz rather than Wells or Hearst. I just wish I got a bit more of a rounder version of Mank the man rather than a sozzled, Hollywood drunkard caricature. For one thing, it’s not for nothing he was once referred to as the funniest man in his native New York.

I saw Kane many years ago and, whilst I was blown away by its sophisticated, innovative use of camerawork, editing and production design, felt that it was a bit too ‘tricksy’ for me. It rested so heavily on its incredible style and élan, from a director I always felt was a bit of a showoff (albeit, the finest showoff the cinema has ever produced), I felt I lost interest in the story.

Casting my mind back, I recall more than once thinking “Gee! Wow, Mr Welles! Another canted camera angle? Another photographic special effect? Gee, you’re really spoiling me!”

Perhaps I am being picky, but those memories of watching it as a ‘Kane virgin’ came flooding back to me as I watched Mank, a movie that follows Kane in terms of arresting, stark, black and white visuals and a script peppered with witty platitudes and psychological insight.

Like Kane, it’s all good stuff but I felt it was all very insular; somewhere along the line, Mank splits away from wanting to inform and entertain a general audience to focus on bigging up the writer’s excellent knowledge of archive Hollywood and how it and its people work.

More than once I thought “This is all going to go over people’s heads”…even my own and I love this kind of movie insider chit chat.

Director Fincher has an awesome cast to work with and Oldman creates a wonderful wreck-head in Mankiewicz, a man who at the time of writing Kane, was on a last promise from La La Land. After a glittering career at Paramount in the 1920’s and then at MGM (he co-wrote the sublime comedy of US manners Dinner at Eight, 1933) he fell from grace, not helped by his legendary alcoholism (he died of uremic poisoning in 1953 aged only 55).

Oldman, that crafty cinematic chameleon, can turn his hand to creating memorable characters with any material. Whenever he’s onscreen, you keep your peepers open for what Mank will do next (vomiting copiously at an imaginary dinner party held at Hearst’s grand palazzo being one such moment).

Marion Davies was, at her peak in the 1920’s, one of the golden people of the silent era but is mostly forgotten today and is mostly famous for allegedly inspiring the Kane character of Susan, the talentless singer Kane promotes to being a star. Not so the real-life Davies who, when in the right sort of material (comedies and satires) had few equals in Hollywood. Hearst (her lover) tinkered with her career and cast her in romances and period dramas that were not her forte. Seyfried essays an intelligent and fun performance as Davies and impish, beautiful, delightful and effervescent woman who was a loyal companion to Hearst.

Cast & credits

Director: David Fincher. 2 hr 11 min (131 min). Netflix/The Searchers. (12A).

Producers: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski.
Writer: Jack Fincher.
Camera: Erik Messerschmidt.
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross.
Sets: Donald Graham Burt.

Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Grossman, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Ferdinand Kingsley.


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