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Mank

Peter W Sheehan  |  04 January 2021

MANK. Starring: Gary Oldman, Tom Burke and Charles Dance. Also, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Tuppence Middleton, and Toby Leonard Moore. Directed by David Fincher. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 132 min.

This American biographical drama explores the issue of who should take credit for the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941), a film which the prestigious international magazine, “Sight and Sound” – for well over two decades – rated ‘the best movie of all time’. In the most recent round of Sight and Sound’s survey of its critics, Citizen Kane (CK) lost its top spot to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), but CK continues to be ranked above most other movies. What this film communicates is consistent with the position taken by film critic, Pauline Kael in her provocative essay, Raising Kane, that was published in 1971 in the New Yorker magazine. 

In the film, Tom Burke takes the role of Orson Welles, who was the leading actor and director of the original 1941 film. Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) originally began the script for CK and Welles and Mankiewicz both were given an Academy Award for Best Original Screen Play for CK in 1942 by Hollywood at a ceremony neither attended. Both this film and Pauline Kael, argue strongly that Orson Welles had little to do with the writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay. The person who should be given credit, they say, is Herman J Mankiewicz, with the nickname of ‘Mank’, that titles this movie. The film is sprinkled with references to Hollywood icons, and production companies, and projects a genuine appreciation of good film-making. 

Mank is the real focus of this biography. Herman J Mankiewicz originally developed the screenplay for CK, and Orson Welles has a heated argument with him at the end of the movie about ‘credit due’. The screenplay came under special fire for its depiction of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), a millionaire business tycoon, whose reputation was both threatened and tarnished by the script. David Fincher, who directs this film, unequivocally credits Mankiewicz as the person responsible for the screenplay.

The film is in black and white and offers a highly detailed, fascinating, and informed account of the power structure of Hollywood in the 1930s. It paints Hollywood cynically, and captures the political (often corrupt) heart of Hollywood’s culture in its golden era times well. Gary Oldman is excellent as Mank, and Tom Burke, although lacking the charisma of the real Orson Welles on screen, performs convincingly. Burke’s portrayal of Orson Welles is affected by the fact that his character is nearly always portrayed through the critical eyes of Mank. We learn a lot more about the social and political features of Hollywood than about the motivations that affected individuals. Viewers learn little, for example, about the personal motivation of Orson Welles, because he is mostly not present, and he is always contrasted with the overpowering personality of Mank – a confirmed alcoholic and compulsive gambler, who was also strategically and politically savvy.

The value of this film lies in the historical light it throws on a famous movie that is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece that is enigmatic in itself. If the movie CK, has film critics judging it as the best movie of all time, for such a long time, it is essential we learn who did what to whom in the creative making of CK, to render such a compelling piece of cinema. 

This movie is crafted well and its stark photography sets the right atmosphere and tone. It deals with a major part of Hollywood history, and throws important light on a significant film that has contemporary overlap with today’s politics characterised frequently by political deceptions, distortions of truth, and attempts to consolidate power. The legacy of CK would have continued without this film, but ‘Mank’, gives enlightened context to a masterpiece that has endured.

CK is well known for the mystery it poses about the identity of ‘Rosebud’ in its famous scene – where Kane murmurs ‘Rosebud’ on his death bed. The film solves that particular puzzle, but tries to clarify something much more important: who was responsible for the writing of the film itself? This is a movie that thoughtfully aims itself at genuinely committed movie-lovers, and it delivers.

Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media
Netflix, Inc – by API
Limited release by cinema, late 1920-early 2021. Also, streamed on Netflix

 

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