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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

‘Mank’: The story of a budding screenplay

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“Citizen Kane” dives into the life of a recently deceased newspaper mogul as recounted by those closest to him, the narrative framed by a search for the meaning behind his enigmatic last word — “rosebud.” With its complex character development, witty dialogue, and flashback-laden narrative structure, “Kane” is remembered as one of the best movies of all time. Yet the creation of this film is shrouded in more controversy than one would probably imagine. Technically, Orson Welles (who stars as Kane) and Herman Mankiewicz shared credit for the original screenplay; however, while Welles is widely regarded as the primary writer, many argue that the script was almost entirely Mankiewicz’s brainchild. This debate has caused many cinema buffs to choose a side as to who deserves the credit for writing “Citizen Kane.” Recently-released biographical drama “Mank” is the latest installment in the ongoing disagreement.

Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, “Mank” follows the writing of and inspiration for “Citizen Kane” from Mankiewicz’s perspective. The movie begins with Mankewiecz, or Mank (Gary Oldman), beginning to write a new screenplay (which would come to be known as “Citizen Kane”). The movie is told through a series of flashbacks, this narrative form likely an ode to the aforementioned “Kane” screenplay. The film’s flashbacks illustrate the progression of Mank’s career, social life and struggle with his personal demons: viewers experience his depression-era career at MGM and his relationship with his family, as well as the broader political turmoil in Hollywood. Mostly, the film revolves around the progression of Mank’s relationships with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the two of whom served as the inspiration for “Citizen Kane” characters Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander, respectively. Mank loathes Hearst, we see, but has a very respectful friendship with Davies.

I was a bit skeptical about whether the film would live up to the promise of its brilliant director and all-star cast, but it absolutely did not disappoint. Oldman shines as Herman Mankiewicz. He plays Mank as a cripple on bedrest, as a powerful creative mind with a full team of writers and the entire industry at his feet, as a washed-up drunk losing everything he has worked for and as an outcast fighting for the best screenplay he has ever written — and he does it all in spectacular fashion. Oldman and Dance succeed in their portrayal of the palpable tension between Mank and Hearst, and Seyfried’s Marion is a breath of fresh air. Compared to her “Citizen Kane” counterpart, Susan Alexander, her charm and wit making her an instantly likable presence. The way the film depicts Mank drawing out a hidden side of Marion’s personality gives her character a depth that I think most movies would have skimmed past, ensuring that she is not reduced to a mere cliché (the way Alexander was). Overall, Seyfried brings such light to this intelligent, bold character that, although Oldman is also amazing, I think the former may have stolen the show with her performance.

It is no secret that David Fincher is an extraordinary director. With hits like “The Social Network” and “Zodiac” under his belt, Fincher’s talents are well known, but what may surprise people is that the screenplay for “Mank” was actually written by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher. “Mank” was also shot completely in black and white, which I think was a brilliant creative decision. The monochromatic scheme in no way detracts from the amazing set design. If anything, I’d say it enhances it. Sets in color can end up looking like cheesy, hyper-realistic props, but when we see a movie in black and white, it’s otherworldly — an art unto itself. The black-and-white movie also possesses a distinct quality, a sort of simplistic grandeur that perfectly depicts the Golden Age of Hollywood (especially with all the art-deco details in the set design). So, while most movies made today that are monochrome feel tacky, “Mank” makes it feel classic and perfectly sets the mood. What’s more is that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who composed the film’s score, only used instruments that would have been available at the time the film is set.

“Mank” is a delightful passage through time, an exploration of a wonderland of splendor and glamor that also recognizes the hardships accompanying such a world. I would recommend it, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. If you decide to watch it, my one recommendation would be to watch “Citizen Kane” first, if only so that the story and the parallels between Kane and Hearst become a bit clearer. I almost watched “Mank” without ever seeing its quasi-predecessor, and I think it would have been a huge mistake.

Title: Mank

Director:David Fincher

Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins

Genre: Biographical drama

If you like: “Citizen Kane,” “RKO 281,” “American Experience”

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5