Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Organ Grinder's Monkey

Film: Mank
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

Long-time readers of this blog (and let’s be honest—that’s most of you) will know that I’m usually behind the times. Oscar nominations come out in January and I’ve usually seen no more than two and I don’t get them all watched until late September, and sometimes not until the following January. The pandemic, for as terrible as it has been, has changed the way films are released. This gives me the opportunity to watch a few likely contenders early. One of those contenders is Mank, the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the man who wrote Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. More realistically, it’s the story of how that screenplay came to be. It’s a likely contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Gary Oldman, possibly Best Original Screenplay, and it might turn up a nomination for Amanda Seyfried for Best Supporting Actress, and a Best Supporting nod for Arliss Howard.

It will not come as a surprise, or should not at least, that Mank takes its cues from Citizen Kane itself. We’re going to get a series of vignettes that show us the history of the players as well as the story in the film’s present of Mankiewicz actually writing the script while convalescing from a serious car accident. We’re going to go back and forth in time, learning the backstory of the screenplay and then the actual creation.

Mank is not a film that lends itself to a straightforward relating of its narrative. What we learn over time is that Mankiewicz is terrible gambler, a complete drunk, and a brilliant screenwriter. He brings his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) into the business as well, and the two toil initially for Lewis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) at MGM. Mank’s drinking and court jester-like personality eventually spoil him to everyone, leaving him more or less freelance, which allowed Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to get him to write the screenplay. We also learn that Mank is a long-time friend of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), on whom he based the screenplay. More importantly for this film, he was friends with Hearst’s paramour, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), making the Kane screenplay perhaps the biggest betrayal of her.

Fincher, of course, is a well-respected director for a reason, and a director who has probably earned a couple of Best Director statues already, despite going 0-for-2 so far. He’s one of those people that you figure will get one eventually, and Mank makes a pretty good case for itself. The decision to film in lustrous black-and-white is a smart one, because it puts the film in the appropriate time frame. It would have looked odd in color, and much of that comes from the way that Fincher directs it. It’s also a film that unveils its narrative in an intelligent way and uses flashbacks well. It’s smart, and Fincher gets good to great performances out of the whole cast.

Mank was written by David Fincher’s father, Jack, who evidently also penned a biopic screenplay about Howard Hughes that finished second to the one used for The Aviator. This is Jack Fincher’s first screen credit, and the man has been dead for 17 years. If he gets a nomination (his is the only name on the screenplay), it would almost have to be a record for longest time posthumous and receiving a nomination. And it honestly should be in contention. It’s smart, it’s humanizing, and it’s brilliantly written.

In fact, my biggest complaint is the voice that Gary Oldman chose to use for Herman Mankiewicz. He sounds almost exactly like Edward Everett Horton in this to the point that it became distracting at times. I kept expecting Fred Astaire to walk on screen at any moment. Oldman is good, of course—he generally is—and had he not recently won an Oscar, he’d be in the forefront for this. In fact, he may well be anyway. It’s been an Olympiad since he won, and I wouldn’t put it past him to walk away with another.

The truth is that Mank is good. It’s a compelling story and it makes the characters, particularly Mank himself and Marion Davies, interesting and worth spending time with. It’s smart and it expects the audience to be smart right along with it. And, it has that quality that makes a well-made movie one that gets a lot of Oscar buzz: it’s about the movie industry, and specifically about the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many a good but not great film or interesting because of how it was made movie has done better at the Oscars than it deserved because of its connection to the past. Mank has that, and it’s better than just good.

So what the hell does the title of this review mean? Watch the movie.

Why to watch Mank: It tells the story it’s telling in the method of the story that it told.
Why not to watch: Why that of all voices?


  1. I do plan to see this not just because it's David Fincher but also for the subject itself. Plus, I just downloaded the abridged version of the film's score to add to my never-ending NIN collection.

  2. I have seen it is available on Netflix and I think I will watch it one of these days. Your recommendation is noted.

    1. It's worth your time. It also made me go back and watch Citizen Kane for the ninth or tenth time.