Updated: Dec 7, 2020
David Fincher’s 11th feature film Mank presents a great divide between the good and the bad of filmmaking. The fanfare surrounding the visual spectacle is well deserved. The film, which orbits 1930’s Hollywood in all its glory, effectively drops us into this era through unique cinematography and sound design. Many critics have cited the mere fact that the film is in black and white as the reason for the film's authenticity, but you would be hard-pressed to find any film from the 1930’s that looks like this one. Its verisimilitude exists not because it mimics 1930’s filmmaking, but because the widescreen and deep focus of the frame offer the illusion of penetrability, as if you could reach your hand into the screen and feel every corner, or stick your head in to give this world a look around. And what a world it is. The studios in their golden age, when the Hollywoodland sign could be seen between the towering sound stages of Paramount, is a playground for classic film buffs. The dazzling cinematography is accompanied by an effectively haunting score which fully encompasses the spectator, emphasizing the misfortune of viewing this film in the comfort of one's own home rather than the big screen. This, as well as the sets and costumes deserve praise. Based on aesthetics, this is a world in which I would very much like to stay.
Unfortunately, this is where the good ends. Mank, a film about a screenwriter and the writing of the proverbial greatest film of all time, suffers in its storytelling and characters, both central and supporting. Our protagonist, Herman Mankiewicz, played by the constantly slurring and often flat-on-his-back Gary Oldman, is a screenwriter whose credits include the pre-code classic Dinner at Eight and contributions to the Marx Brothers and The Wizard of Oz. Those unfamiliar with Mankiewicz will finish the film still with little familiarity with his work or understanding why he deserves to be the centre of a two hour drama:
“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave an impression of one”
This, which Mankiewicz says in reference to the enigmatic Charles Foster Kane, ironically summarizes Mank’s fatal flaw. If we don’t fully know Kane at the end of Citizen Kane, we have not even the slightest impression of Mankiewicz. What we know is that he drinks in excess and is a contrarian. Of course, it’s easy to be a contrarian on the right side of history when your opposition is downplaying the threat of Hitler and supporting capitalist greed. His wife Sara, played with refined subtly by Tuppence Middleton, asks “why do I love you?”. Neither the audience nor the film itself is ever able to answer this question. The story plays out of sequence without any supportive reasoning for this choice. This timeline felt like an obligatory allusion to that portrayed in Citizen Kane without any character development or significant narrative revelations to justify it. There would be little to indicate when each scene was taking place if not for the use of screenplay scene-headings that appear when convenient.
“It's a bit of a jumble. A collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans” (Mank, 2020)
Mank does not shy away from dropping high-profile names only to pull them away before they can hit the ground. There are degrees of exhibition to which historical characters are dangled in front of us. Those who are given more than a second of screen time were still offered such little development and characterization that they could be replaced by cardboard cutouts. Louis B. Mayer, played by Arliss Howard, spends his screen time crying or conniving, committing to the portrayal of Mayer as the legendary villain of M.G.M. The innovative legacy of Irving Thalberg, played by Ferdinand Kingsley, is hardly examined. His untimely death at the age of 37, which put Hollywood on hold and was considered a great tragedy in the industry, is portrayed but has almost no emotional weight if your only familiarity with Thalberg is through this film. Tom Burke’s lack of resemblance to Orson Welles does not deter from his admirable performance and voice work, but this portrayal ends in a comically rage-filled whimper. Looming over the film sporadically throughout its runtime only to resort to a childish temper tantrum is a gross misuse of one of the most interesting figures of cinema history. His portrayal is not dissimilar to that of Bruce Lee in last year’s Hollywood revisionist love letter Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which summarized Lee as an egomaniacal hothead. William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful men of the twentieth century and king of San Simeon, registers as a whisper of a character. This is particularly unfortunate considering the grandiosity possessed by his portrayer, the appallingly underused Charles Dance. Much like how Fincher fails to convince the audience why Mankiewicz is a character worth pursuing, there is no Rubicon moment to suggest why Hearst is a man worthy of inspiring the story of Kane. Instead, shady business and corrupt politics fizzle together to form a man undefined. While Amanda Seyfried offers a fine performance as the misremembered Marion Davies, much of her reverence may be attributed to the classically inspired way in which she is framed. Even in darkness, she is constantly engulfed in whiteness, a glow similar to the haze with which actresses of the 1930's and 1940's were portrayed. To judge Seyfried or her costars performances is problematic not because their performances were bad or good, but because no single character was ever given the opportunity to be more than a shell.
Just below this rung of waxworks were the characters that exist in recognizable name alone, perhaps with a line or two of dialogue. Modern days actors with little resemblance to their real-life counterparts are presented so that movie buffs can give each other a nudge-and-a-wink and non-movie buffs can feel absolutely nothing. Josef von Sternberg makes an appearance at a pitch-meeting for a non-existent Paramount produced Frankenstein; an actor who bears a resemblance to silent-legend John Gilbert is punched in the face by Mayer; a shadowed Lionel Barrymore makes an appearance, as does Shirley Temple. Norma Shearer Thalberg sits dutifully at the side of her husband as her face remains hidden in shadow and cut off by the restrictions of the frame, as if Fincher is actively preventing us from looking too closely lest we should realize that this modern actress looks nothing like and possesses no mannerisms similar to the Queen of the Lot. This portrayal of Shearer and her colleagues effectively epitomizes the film’s entire relationship to actual history, presenting a half-baked claim of injustice disguised by a spectacle of movie magic.
Mank’s Wikipedia and IMDb pages suggest that several titans of the golden age can be seen on the screen at any given time: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Bette Davis apparently all make appearances but managed to evade my gaze. Because of these supposed cameos and the film’s undeniable visual appeal, I found my eyes darting around every corner of the frame, trying to take it all in and achieve a star sighting. Soon my familiarity with the era and eagerness to capture every possible reference was the only thing sustaining my interest. I had no concern for the main or supporting character’s plight nor was I invested in the story unfolding out in front of me. As the film was ending, I realized that I didn’t want it to, not because I was particularly enjoying myself, but because I was so desperate for it to get better. I still felt no affiliation towards Mankiewicz nor any secondary character, but I unconditionally love this world and wanted the people in it to be given an opportunity to leave an impression, but that opportunity never came. Instead they drifted around a series of dazzling set pieces without ever planting their feet firmly on the floor.