Mank: The Best Picture that Stank, by Christian Thomey
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
In the long line of social issue dramas nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year, David Fincher’s Mank is one of the worst films I have seen to date. This film was released in mid-November of 2020 right after the 2020 election. Because of the timing this film was released, this film reflects politics more than the main character himself.
Mank tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Mankiewicz, also known as Mank, wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, widely perceived as one of the best films ever made. It’s difficult to explain what exactly this film is about. I approached Mank expecting a biopic focused on Mank that chronicles his creative process crafting one of the most influential movies in our culture. That is not what I got. Instead, I got a social issue drama that has very little to do with the main character himself, and his “process” is presented as more of a subplot.
Subverting expectations is not a bad direction to take if those expectations are exceeded, but this film feels so pretentious and by-the-book that it tries desperately to represent something important despite the end product representing nothing at all. It’s one of those films that follows a non-linear plot structure, jumping from the past to present day. I guess the idea for this was to give homage to Citizen Kane, which followed a similar structure. While that film’s non linear structure actually helped further a plot and unravel a mystery, the way it is used in Mank is more akin to a check mark. If any of those flashbacks were deleted, it would not have made a difference in the context of the main character’s goals, and the worst part about it: The movie spends most of its time in those flashbacks, despite it offering very little in Mank’s character development. This nonlinear structure also seemed pretentious because it was a structure similar to many other films nominated for Best Picture this year including Trial of the Chicago 7. It’s trying to pay homage to Citizen Kane through its style, but that only makes sense to people who have watched Citizen Kane. Otherwise, it’s pointless. Instead, it comes across like it’s piggybacking off of more successful films instead of attempting to be its own thing.
The political commentary of this film isn’t executed well. A number of scenes focus on the election of Upton Sinclair and William Randolph Hearst. I found myself cringing a lot through these scenes because the dialogue is so forced and familiar. It tries to relate to the audience, even though nobody in the film sounds like they even believe what they are saying. For example, one scene shows a radio host interviewing an old Republican woman. She says, “I don’t know a thing about politics, but I know we can’t have socialistic communists in America.” This kind of political discourse is emphasized more than Mank himself, and diverts from the overall plot.
Although, I think it was best to divert attention away from Mank because he is a character who is already so full of himself. As much as I like Gary Oldman as an actor, he does not work well here. Mank, as a character, is as pretentious as the political commentary that plagues this film. The film tries to balance his character as one of the most important people in the world while trying to pull off the misunderstood genius cliché. It also doesn’t help that Mank is a drunk writer who doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his wife. This cliché is present in most Stephen films (and mostly doesn’t work) but feels more genuine in those than how it is used here. This cliché is tired and disguises itself as an original character study.
There are a few aspects of Mank that make the viewing experience worth it, however. The casting is spot on. Gary Oldman, despite a poor performance, was a great choice for Mank because he uncannily captures the essence of the actual Herman Mankiewicz. Orson Wells is the best character by far, played by Tom Burke. Wells is left in the shadows for most of the film, but still holds a strong presence, even when off-screen. The final confrontation between Orson and Mank supplies the most entertaining scene in this movie. Finally, the black-and-white sepia hue of this film is very well done. This made it feel like an actual movie from the 1930s, and the attention to detail in its aesthetic makes the film’s cinematography unique.
Mank should not have been a social issue drama. It’s a social issue drama because it believes it has to be. This film does not reflect any of the ideals presented in the movie and comes across as a desperate attempt to be relevant. Of all the films that are nominated for Best Picture this year, this film will become less relevant as the years go by. If they chose to stick towards a biographical film than a political film, then this would have worked a lot better.