Review – Mank

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, December 11th. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are! 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a new movie about Old Hollywood.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Film historians may have yet to solve the mystery of exactly who or what “Rosebud” was in Orson Welles’ movie—some would say the greatest movie of all time—Citizen Kane. But Netflix’s new drama, Mank, pulls the curtain back on just about every other secret surrounding the famous production.

The Mank in question is Golden Age screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman in yet another Oscar-worthy performance.

CLIP: Pops, this is Herman Mankiewicz but we’re to call him Mank. Herman Mankiewicz, New York playwright and drama critic? Turned humble screenwriter, Mr. Hearst. Why, no need to be humble Mr. Mankiewicz, pictures will talk in the future. They’re going to need people who honor words to give them a voice. There’s a golden age coming when all the world will be a stage, and you perhaps, their Shakespeare.

A degenerate gambler and drunk, Mank has skated through his career, barely skimming the surface of the deep reservoir of writing talent he possesses. Most of the time he’s content to pitch pseudo-intellectual dreck to studio heads too much the philistines to recognize it for what it is.

CLIP: Tell him about the finale, Charlie. Oh. Well, the rain turns to sleet, puts out the fire, and entombs the monster in solid ice while nearby an old priest weeps. Hmm. A weeping priest. Thunder, lightning, blood, religion. All in one film? And with an unseasonable thaw, a sequel. I thought you said this was about something, this was different. Plus, the ominous futility of man playing God. The Faustian bargain of life everlasting. The triumph of the human spirit over the beast incarnate in our far-too-solid flesh. That’s director-proof.

Eventually, a political vendetta against newspaper baron Howard Hearst drives Mank to team up with 24-year-old virtuoso, Orson Welles, to write the first draft of Citizen Kane.

The film’s skewering of Hollywood ethics—or lack of them—is good fun that comes with fewer expletives than you might expect from the R rating.

CLIP: My boy, there are three work rules at this studio. Rule number one, ars gratia artis. Art for art’s sake. How you doing. One million dollars a year we spend on stories we never even film. Why not? I’ll tell you, they don’t make me cry…Rule number two. You may have heard MGM has more stars than the heavens. Do not believe this. We have only one star. That is Leo the Lion. Never forget that. Many stars have, and now they twinkle elsewhere.

The film is refreshingly free of all other R content. Self-consciously stylish and stylized, the black and white production immerses the viewer in the feeling of the era, not just through the pre-war musical score and affected accents, but through a never-ending, rapid fire exchange of witticisms.

CLIP: You fractured Wally Beery’s wrist Indian wrestling. Boy was he surprised you’re stronger than you look. And from what I remember, you’re smarter. That was a compliment. See what I mean? That was interesting. I need a favor but you’re going to have to promise you won’t laugh. Given the state of the world, a tall order.

How many sparkling one-liners fill Mank? Enough that I eventually had to quit noting them down for potential use in this review.

The strongest parts of the film—the beginning and end—offer a parable about the creative process. We get hints that it isn’t so much the drinking and all around lousy living that plague Mank, it’s his knowledge that he’s squandering his talent on easy money, his time churning out hits that will mostly be forgotten.

Unfortunately, director David Fincher turns his attention away from this compelling character study to push a political agenda that seems to have less to do with Mank than Fincher.

CLIP: Too often sir, the religion of Jesus is used by the ruling classes to keep themselves in power and the poor ever poorer. And that my friends is a sin and an error.

The movie clearly sides with novelist and gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (and an increasing number of politicians and pastors today) that Jesus held socialist sympathies. It’s a bit ironic that the film, which so hails Mank’s stubborn refusal to offer uncritical support to any political movement, doesn’t look more closely at how conveniently its themes align with prevailing opinion in today’s Tinsel Town.

It’s also curious how even tales of Hollywood corruption feature GOP power-mongers at their center. But Fincher does at least give the protagonist a smart and thoughtful Republican to tangle with.

CLIP: I know what I am Mank. When I come to work I don’t consider it slumming. I don’t use humor to keep myself above the fray. And I always go to the mat for what I believe in. I haven’t the time to do otherwise. But you, sir, how formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.

What was brilliant about Mank’s script for Citizen Kane is how it peeled away the layers to show us the deeper needs of the man behind the politics and corruption. It’s a shame David Fincher didn’t follow his character’s lead.

I’m Megan Basham.

(Netflix via AP) In this image released by Netflix, Gary Oldman portrays Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from “Mank.” 

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