A ravishing yet confused movie: Guy Black reviews ‘Mank’
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz. | Image: Courtesy of Netflix
It may feature a brilliant performance by Gary Oldman, but Mank places too many demands on the viewer and is unlikely to become an enduring cinematic classic like its inspiration, Citizen Kane
As Europe teetered on the edge of war in 1939, Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles landed the kind of job most people in showbusiness only ever dream about. He signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures which was unprecedented at the time (and, I imagine, since). He was given the money and freedom to make any movie he wanted, on any subject, with complete freedom to edit, with no oversight and with any collaborator.
The project he chose was Citizen Kane, based on the life of William Randolph Hearst; and the collaborator was Herman J Mankiewicz. While Citizen Kane, with its searing insight into how the worlds of politics and the media collide, is now regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, its writer has been largely forgotten – until now. Mank – streaming on Netflix – is the story of a hopeless alcoholic who wrote Kane in 90 days.
To prove the point that there is nothing Hollywood likes more than a film about Hollywood, it has 10 nominations for the Academy Awards later this month, and six for the Golden Globes. It will undoubtedly win some because of the breath-taking quality of the black and white cinematography and the sheer brilliance of Gary Oldman as “Mank” – but, to paraphrase the famous put-down of Dan Quayle by Lloyd Bentsen, “this is no Citizen Kane”.
There are huge pluses which make it worth two and half-hours of your time. Oldman depicts Mank’s alcoholism with incredible precision. In one memorable scene, the drunken Mank gatecrashes a dinner hosted by Hearst who tells him: “I’m shocked to see you here,” to which Mank replies, “I’d be shocked to see me here if only I knew where ‘here’ was,” before vomiting over the table.
If you want a film where a plot really develops, this will not be it
The filming of this biopic is ravishing. The script is witty and pacey. (Mank at one point says of Hearst, whom he grew to hate, that “if ever I went to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting on my lap”.)
But there are minuses, too, which means this is not a film for everyone. If you’ve never seen Citizen Kane, or do not know about the career of Welles, the film will make little sense. If you have no knowledge of the minutiae of Hollywood politics and personalities in the 1940s – and which of us does? – much of it will leave you bemused (and frustrated). If you want a film where a plot really develops, this will not be it: the basic concept – drunk with no real redeeming qualities writes brilliant script in three months – never really goes anywhere else. And perhaps more than anything, the film is beset by incredibly annoying and confusing flashbacks throughout, meaning you never really know where or when you are.
In one appearance the Hollywood legend Louis B Mayer – founder of the MGM “dream factory” – says astutely to Mank: “The person who goes to one of my films gets nothing for his money but a memory.” Unlike the towering Citizen Kane, memories of Mank may fade fast.
Lord Black of Brentwood is a Conservative peer
Directed by: David Fincher
10 OSCAR NOMINATIONS: including Best Actor: Gary Oldman
2 OSCAR WINS: Best Cinematography & Best Production Design