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Mank (Movie Review)

An artistic and entertaining look at an artist standing firm in integrity with feet of clay.

About The Film

“I have seem to become more and more of a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape.”

-Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz

As a visceral and immersive art form, movies have transported viewers everywhere from galaxies far, far away to nearby suburbs.  Genres, sub-genres and cross genres have been established, excavated, everted and reestablished more times than Nicholas Cage’s hair.  However, perhaps the most challenging movie genre is the ‘movie about movies’ genre.  This difficult mission becomes almost impossible when the subject matter revolves around “the greatest movie ever made.”

Mank follows Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman).  A true writer’s writer, he drinks, procrastinates, drinks, raises cain, then drinks some more before deciding to write.  Dangling liquor like a carrot, Mank is sequestered by wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write Citizen Kane.  Mankiewicz also reflects on the forces compelling him to write Citizen Kane, including his friendships with Kane’s inspiration, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).   

For Consideration:

On the Surface:

There is no nudity, but there is heavy profanity, some innuendo, an off-camera suicide and, you guessed it, plenty of drinking and substance abuse.

Beneath the Surface:

Cynicism in Art and Politics

Mank’s scope isn’t limited to the real-life dispute between Mankiewicz and Welles over Citizen Kane’s authorship. Instead, the story explores art and politics through a clear-eyed cynicism. This theme is dramatized through flashbacks taking place during the 1930s. With the Great Depression raging, a famous writer named Upton Sinclair made a populist push to become California’s governor.  Looking to derail Sinclair, Hearst paid and commissioned MGM to produce a fake, propagandic film camouflaged as a newsreel. 

Most films would steer their story toward art being a force for political good but Mank veers into murkier, more seedy territory. The film’s director, Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane), confesses to Mank his personal war of conscience. He sees this film as a means to climb up MGM’s career ladder.  Yet, he is sinking in moral quicksand. Mankiewicz tries and fails to prevent this film from being released and in turn, feels responsible for Shelly’s Faustian deal.  Though it would be easy, Mank doesn’t clobber viewers hearts and heads with these clear political parallels to today.  The audience witnesses how cynicism grinds up an artist. Given our current time, it is a refreshing reminder of the potent toxicity of art and politics.

Artistic Integrity

Mank’s failure with Shelly flows into the story’s main theme.  At first, Mankiewicz is content to get paid as a hired gun and receive no credit. This soon changes. While acknowledging Citizen Kane is his best work, people close to Mank try to convince him to change the story. William Randolph Hearst was all powerful, the type of man with dense Wikipedia articles. His vast newspaper kingdom stretched from sea to shining sea. Also, Mank was not some outsider; he was part of Hearst’s royal court.  He had a front seat to his immensity. It was crazy to take such a naked shot at media’s king. 

Mank’s dramatic axis rests on this theme. Most films examining artistic integrity would feature a bright-eyed, if not arrogant, protagonist thinking his ideals alone will yield change.  Mank’s story design resist easy answers. Mankiewicz is a self-destructive, gambling drunk imprisoned by his own vices.  He’s reckoning with a conscious and artistic merit he’s tried and failed to kill. Rather than accept a payout, Mankiewicz is willing to stand by his story, stand firm against Hearst and stand up to Welles.  Yet Mankiewicz doesn’t receive a hero’s ending.  He is still marginalized by both Welles and Hearst. 

Final Verdict

It is a testament to director David Fincher’s (The Social Network, Gone Girl, Fight Club) considerable ability that Mank doesn’t drift into preachiness. This may be the Citizen Kane of movies about making movies.

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