What’s the fundamental message of David Fincher‘s Mank, that smart, silky backstroke through the lore of 1930s and early ’40s Hollywood? And what is the main lesson to be gained about the boozy adventures of the wise and witty Herman J. Mankiewicz as he blurp-blurped his way through the political tangle represented by RKO, Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Upton Sinclair and Louis B. Mayer?
The lesson (provided by screenwriters Jack Fincher and Eric Roth) is that you can’t have genius without a certain amount of eccentricity and even (God help us) a touch of perversity.
Most of us would probably have it otherwise, but it comes with the territory. We all just want to get the job done, get paid and go home. Geniuses, alas, have other ideas and tendencies. For every ounce of divine inspiration, they often bring two or three ounces (and sometimes even a pound) of exasperation
It is Mank‘s task to gently remind us that geniuses are also, after a fashion, “fun” people to hang with. Fun as in “amusing in a fickle or irksome sort of way.” Not to mention stimulating, surprising, frustrating, given to mid-afternoon naps, mind-opening, amusing. Hollywood professions pay well, but what’s the point of doing anything in life if you can’t look back on your professional trials and tribulations and say “well, at least there were peaks as well as valleys!”?
I’ve just checked and Mank is still a “fun” movie — a mix of smarthouse Hollywood wit and dreamhouse-ing…the handsomest silver swagger flick to come down the pike in 2020…a Hollywood head-trip movie for the ages, And it’s aimed almost solely at seasoned, well-educated film sophistos. Which is a good thing, right? Considering that most films these days are aimed at folks who don’t get it or would rather not?
Brilliant and specific and always meditative, Mank is mostly about the ways of genius mixed with the rigorous discipline of writing, the slow ways of alcohol poisoning and the complexities of studio politics.
It hopscotches all around in a non-linear way, which of course is a tribute to the Citizen Kane scheme. I adored the use of clackety-clack scene descriptions dropping into the frame. And I loved re-hearing the line “it’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.” (Which apparently wasn’t written by Mankiewicz but Alan Jay Lerner for Brigadoon.)
The nutritional value of the dialogue alone should not be under-celebrated. For the film put me into a kind of subdued swoon mode — a certain form of smarthouse rapture that leaves you quietly stirred and pacified. That’s a fairly rare thing.
What’s the Mank arc? Basically that even for a self-destructive boozer like Mankiewicz, life took a turn for the better when Orson Welles came calling. And that despite the political intrigues and whatnot, things worked out very nicely for an all-too-brief period. And at the end of the path came a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
Boozy behavior and pot belly aside aside, Mankiewicz is depicted in each and every scene as a humanist and a good fellow — a man who sides with the weak and unlucky, with the less fortunate and downtrodden. He’s good company.
Oldman is wonderful. That thin, raspy little voice tossing off one witticism after another. He simply won me over. I just fell for the verbal derring-do.
Mank is not just about the writing of the Citizen Kane script, which the film definitely credits Mankiewicz with the lion’s share of the credit. Welles pruned and streamlined, it says, and of course directed the film magnificently.
It’s also about the California governor’s race of 1934, in which socialist writer turned Democrat Upton Sinclair ran against Republican Frank Merriam. It focuses on a certain “fake news” campaign on Merriman’s behalf, paid for by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and pushed along by production chief Irving Thalberg. Good fellow Mank tries to keep the fake news doc from being made, of course. I appreciated the present-day allusion in this subplot It was fine — not a speedbump.
If sharp direction, whipsmart writing, superb production design and immaculate performances top to bottom get to you on a primal level (as they do me) then Mank is about as audience friendly as a classic Hollywood film could possibly be.