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They Don't Make Them Like They Used to...
Well, as it turns out, they do. Look no further than Mank for an Old Timey-esque Talkie. Mank is an ode (and maybe a not-so-subtle jab) to Old Hollywood and love letter to one of Cinema's grandest achievements. One might notice that it pays homage to Citizen Kane in the way it's shot and constructed, but this would be obvious when knowing the plot's synopsis. For those who might be unaware, Mank is about the (mostly?) true story of the complicated figure who wrote Citizen Kane, and the possibly unknown circumstances and controversies surrounding it. The irony of the film is that although it's supposed to be about the writing of Citizen Kane, that's just surface level - it's barely about that. It covers much more than that; moreso about the man behind the legend, and the mythology within. To talk about Mank is to talk about Gary Oldman, and David Fincher. Gary Oldman, is, of course, in fine form and the title character: Herman Mankiewicz. David Fincher returns to feature filmmaking for the first time in six years, and it's more than a welcome return.
Gary Oldman as 'Mank'
As stated, Gary Oldman is top-tier, as per usual. He plays the ever-complicated character of Herman Mankiewiecz, someone's life I was unaware of. An alcoholic and a struggling, washed-up playwright turned screenwriter is called upon by the mystical Orson Welles to write a screenplay for him. Little did he know, this would turn out to be his magnum opus. In addition to being an alcoholic and enigmatic writer, he is a wise-cracking, clever, and charming man who is mostly loved in the film and stage communities. As his drinking worsens, he expectedly spirals out of control as he struggles to maintain a balance between familial, social, political, and work lives. Oldman plays this character exceedingly well as he's served up with some of the best dialogue of the year and is all but guaranteed a nomination for Best Actor at the upcoming Oscars. I must also add it was wonderful to see Charles Dance in a non-Game of Thrones role; fans of the series will recognize him immediately. Lily Collins also turns in an exceptional performance, not to be outshined by the rest of the stellar cast. Fincher would never allow for any subpar performances.
The Fincher Effect
David Fincher had taken a bit of a hiatus from feature filmmaking during the mid to late 2010s to pursue television, most specifically serving as show-runner for Netflix's Mindhunter. Some of Fincher's best direction is on display in Mank as he pays reverence to the Cinematic Landmark that is Citizen Kane. It's peppered throughout and is abundantly clear, even if you haven't even seen the film. On that topic, it is not compulsory viewing to see Citizen Kane prior to watching Mank, however, it would only aid and improve your viewing experience. Back to Fincher, he thrives on controversy and dark/nefarious subject matter - needless to say, he thrives once again in his storytelling of Mank. Not only in its direction and the way that it's shot, but also the way that it's edited, the transitions, the sound, at times the acting felt like it hearkens back to the films in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and their style of filmmaking. Written by his father, Jack Fincher, the screenplay of Mank is the best writing of 2020 I've seen/heard to date. I would be absolutely SHOCKED if this was not the winner of Best Original Screenplay, let alone if it were to somehow tragically miss out on a nomination.
The way in which Mank is shot mirrors and mimics many shots and scenes from Citizen Kane, which should not be a surprise to anyone. But, as someone who watched Citizen Kane (for the first time) recently, I appreciated those nods. The cinematography is a shoo-in for a nomination and is yet another aspect of the film I would be flabbergasted if it did not take home the award. This is not only because of the black and white style, but also because the lighting, the framing, and the camera movements are so impeccably done, it's almost as if there was a perfectionist behind the camera.
The acting across the board was great, but I would be remiss if I did not mention Amanda Seyfried. In my humble opinion, she has never been better. Her chemistry with Oldman was electric and her performance was entrancing. I hardly felt like I was watching the same actress I had grown accustomed to over the years. Every time she was off-screen, I would pray she would be in the subsequent scene. The scenes danced whenever she was on-screen. She was served up with some excellent dialogue, but her delivery of the lines was top-shelf. This would be another shock if she were to miss out on a nomination. I would venture to bet that she will be recognized at this year's Oscars, but I have been surprised with snubs before (Exhibit A: my previous article). Be prepared for Seyfried to make some waves this awards season.
The Screenplay about the Screenplay
As I mentioned before, Mank was written by David Fincher's father, Jack Fincher. This is some of the best work I've seen yet this year. The dialogue was sharp, clever, unique, witty, and top-notch. The alternating timelines always keeps you interested, just as the Citizen Kane screenplay does. The way that it's constructed leaves you to wonder what's to happen next, and contextualizes everything in the film's pivotal scene towards the end. Each scene feels better than the last, and that's exactly what you want out of a film. The script perfectly builds on itself as it goes along, and strongly develops the character of Mank throughout. It helps you to understand the culture and the environment of the film industry during those times. I thoroughly enjoyed the screenplay, and I typically hate the trope of writers writing about writers. (But that's literally what the film's about, so I had to forgive it for that)
It's hard to imagine I would have anything bad to say about this film, as I've been praising it throughout the entirety of this review. However, I did find myself rolling my eyes at the political subplot of the film. I am aware that this was necessary for the plot as it points to what the themes and ideas were for what Mank would ultimately inject into the Citizen Kane screenplay and was important to part of Mank's character development. I did not find all that to be so on-the-nose as wholly necessary, but alas, that's the way it was included and that's all fine. I also felt that the film was maybe a little bit too long at 132 minutes, but David Fincher can make films however long he wants and I will still watch them on opening day. I found myself a little bored at times, but this really does not detract from the film as a whole too much. Again, refer to all the much deserved praise in the aforementioned sections. If you are a fan of Citizen Kane, David Fincher, and Capital C Cinema in general, this is absolutely made for you. If you don't typically go in for films about Hollywood and the makings of films, still watch it. It's intriguing at the very least, for the Mank/Orson Welles mythology alone. As for its awards prospects, you already know a film about Old Hollywood is going to be eaten right up by the Academy.
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Mank is a Netflix Original Film and can be found exclusively on Netflix.