Mank, does it Stank? Where would it rank? What do I thank?
My experience watching Mank, is not a common one. I think it is a technical masterpiece, and I was constantly in awe. The costume and set designs are stellar, the recreation of the past is phenomenally detailed. The cinematography and editing are just divine. All the shot parallels to Citizen Kane are nice call backs. The black and white captures the classic Hollywood aesthetic to a tee. The fact that there’s little touches like the screenplay typewriter scene transition and the addition of cue marks in certain areas to capture the look of film was gorgeous.
Mank is worth watching alone for its visual designs. However, despite being completely enamored with the construction of the film; as the final credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel, “wow, that’s 2 hours I will never get back”.
I think the problem is that no matter how dressed up it is, the screenplay for Mank is embarrassingly bad. It’s as if it was written by someone who’s never written a screenplay before. That’s because it was written by someone who’s never written a screenplay before. The script was written by Jack Fincher, the father of David Fincher who died in 2003. Apparently, never is a bit of an exaggeration as the late Fincher wrote a biopic on Howard Hughes but it was rejected in favor of what we now know as The Aviator Script.
I think what’s upsetting about Mank is that it has all the ingredients for an enticing narrative but instead would rather go on loosely connected tangents. The premise is all there: Herman J. Mankiewicz is a charismatic figure that has integrity in a corrupt society. He essentially acts as a whistleblower calling out the outrageous tycoon in William Randolph Hearst. Though those around him are scared of the consequences and would rather not go toe to toe with this media giant. The only person on board with Mank’s challenge to this figure head is Orson Welles. The only problem is Welles himself is quite diabolical and acting within his own self-interest. It’s about challenging authority, but the dilemma of the means to do it.
However, this film seems too afraid to fictionalize any part of this story, or even really care about it. If you are telling the story of the making of Citizen Kane, they it’s weird that both Hearst and Welles are barely in the film, and both fail to really make an impression. Mank’s personal connection to Hearst comes across as non-existent, and you never get to see the parallels between Hearst and Kane.
“Un” Important Players
“The thing is, Mankiewicz had been close with Hearst. They weren’t just acquainted; they were friends, having met when Mankiewicz started writing for Hollywood. Hearst loved having Mankiewicz around because he was amused by the writer’s sharp wit and barbed bon mots.”–Alissa Wilkinson, Vox
For a narrative entrenched on this betrayal, it’s a lot of tell don’t show. The two share only a couple of scenes together. One that introduces the idea that these two barely met at least once, and then at the very end where we get the grand act of betrayal pitching Citizen Kane in a drunken rant in front Hearst and many guests.
Maybe there’s some benefits to the reserved presence of Hearst, the organ grinder’s monkey allegory is possibly the most tantalizing piece to this film. However, since we never see much of Hearst it presents it as Mank just having this petty politically charged hatred of the idea of the man rather than the man himself. We’re told that Mank used to be friends, but from watching this movie they come across as more friend of a friend. For as much as this film is dressing up, Mank to be the hero of this story, he pretty much comes across as the drunk uncle who wants to discuss politics at Thanksgiving, and nobody wants that guy to be the hero of your story.
Welles is a similar case of being presented as the bad guy, but the film having no desire to elaborate why he is. Welles for the most part is this specter lurking in the shadows, pressuring Mank to get the film done. In a final meeting, Mank asks to receive credit which violates the contracted agreement they set prior. Welles gets upset and yells for a couple of seconds and that’s it…. that’s the payoff. The “purging act of violence” was a little extra, but Welles being upset that someone went back on a deal isn’t exactly the most outrageous act of villainy. Deserving of the credit…probably not but it just makes Mank look extremely petty and stubborn himself.
Rather Talk Politics
The truth is Mank doesn’t really care about the authorship or muses of Citizen Kane. This is evident in that most of the runtime is dedicated to this election tangent or being a classic Hollywood almanac. A majority of the 2nd act centers around Mank’s intrigue in the upcoming governor election of Merriam vs. Sinclair. Not devoid of substance it is interesting to see how Hollywood elites are pulling the strings, and the question of the integrity of the players involved. This would be an interesting subplot, but it’s arguably the main plot. The climax is the election results, and the conclusion of writing Citizen Kane is the denouement that spurs from that event.
That leads into the other struggle of Mank, there’s a jarring lack of tension or conflict. Maybe not the most compelling cinematically, but Mank never shows any signs of struggling to complete his screenplay by the deadline. It’s hard to make the writing process the most fascinating thing to follow, but Adaptation did it so it’s certainly plausible. It makes it come across that writing the actual script was a breeze and was completed with ease. Mank is such a self-assured character that these feeble attempts of push-back, those egging him to reconsider are obviously falling on deaf ears.
There’s no tension because this film is almost entirely for film buffs or film historians. What person isn’t going to know that Citizen Kane is an RKO Picture, and that Upton Sinclair was never governor. The outcome to all these solutions is so predictable from a story perspective. Mank isn’t really telling a story, it’s bringing to life a culmination of Wikipedia articles together. That’s why I almost ponder if this could have been the most elaborate and well-done documentary if they used this as dramatic recreation and inserted some talking head or primary source evidence throughout.
Why Are You Here?
I think the clearest indicator, of Mank’s lack of focus and prioritizing of historical tidbits is the almost irrelevant inclusion of Shelly Metcalf and Irving Thalberg. Both are involved to be recognizable figures during the period, and demonstrate how the Hollywood machine works for its own political interest. They are also included so the film can exploit their tragic deaths for some shock and drama. The story of Mank himself is so dry that the film looks elsewhere to provide the audience with some unexpected turns in the narrative.
Of course, this really happened so you can tie them into the action and offer some more historical knowledge into your film. For a second, consider if a fictional story shoe-horned random characters like this. An example would be to imagine if in To Kill a Mockingbird, there was just this random neighbor character named George. George is this super nice neighbor guy who you see mowing his lawn every once in a while. Then suddenly, Midway through they unexpected announce that George died, and they spend the next three pages mourning old George. I could argue that George would be a valuable addition as he fleshes out the rest of society, and maybe represents the death of American values without proper justice. While that might be nice, doesn’t adding another decent person detract from how Atticus’ morality, and his death would distract from the death of Tom Robinson… you know the characters you should care about in that story?
INT. The Movies – Night
Does Mank stank? I think it’s more complicated than that. From an “all art is politic” stance, there’s a ton to excavate and interpret under multiple angles. From an admiration of the technical aspects and visuals, it’s an excellent view and something to behold. In terms of crafting a gripping and engaging story that proves that the tale behind the film is just as compelling as Kane itself? ABSOLUTELY NOT. As a glimpse into Hollywood history, it’s certainly interesting though I don’t think I’ll have any desire to ever revisit it.
Rather I recommend, The video behind the Mank v. Welles controversy by The Royal Ocean Film society. It’s a well researched video that has a more nuance and elaborate take on Kane’s authorship. Plus it’s 2 hours shorter than Mank so, potentially a real time saver.