In 1940, Herman Mankiewicz or “Mank” (Gary Oldman) was holed up in a small bungalow in the middle of the Mojave Desert to nurse a broken leg he sustained from a car accident. It was during this time that Mank had been recruited by director Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay for his next project for which RKO had granted him complete control. Mank would go on a write the script of what was to become “Citizen Kane,” loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Ten years earlier, Mank first met Hearst at the set of the latest film of actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who called Hearst her “Pops.” From then on, Hearst supported Mank’s career and invited him to the parties he hosted at his lavish mansion. Mank had a major falling out with Hearst in 1934 after Mank’s drunken rant at one of these parties. Mank described a film about Hearst as a modern-day Don Quixote and Davies as his Dulcinea. Hearst showed him out after telling him the parable of the organ-grinder’s monkey.
A major reason for Mank’s anger at that party followed his discovery that the big bosses of MGM, namely Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), filmed smear campaigns against socialist candidate Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) during the 1934 gubernatorial elections in California. This part about fake news, of course, is still very rampant in the political landscape today all over the world — how people are bound to believe false information if they are constantly being told these lies.
Watching ‘Mark” will make you want to revisit Orson Welles’ classic 1941 opus “Citizen Kane,” always mentioned to this day as among the greatest films of all time. You will appreciate the parallelisms Mank made about Hearst and Charles Foster Kane (and Don Quixote). Both were ruthless and rich yellow journalists who had a fancy estate with a zoo and a second-rate entertainer as a wife. It will be very apparent why “Citizen Kane” was a very controversial film at that time, as Mank’s references were not exactly thinly veiled. “Citizen Kane” was nominated for nine Oscars, but only took home one — for Mank’s original screenplay, an award which he had to share with Orson Welles, grudgingly.
Mank was only 55 when he died in 1953, so the 62-year old Gary Oldman was clearly too old to play Mank in his early 30s and 40s. This detail aside, Oldman, of course, gave an award-worthy transformative performance in the lead role. His delivery of those quick-witted, sarcastic zingers Mank was known for were so smooth and natural. Portrayals of alcoholics have a good track record for winning Oscars, and this one is on that level. That scene of an inebriated Mank’s climactic monologue at Hearst’s costume party was a major highlight.
Amanda Seyfried gave a sympathetic performance as Marion Davies. When Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) admonished Mank about how his script can affect Marion, this was the part that made me want to watch “Citizen Kane” again to see how Kane’s wife Susan was portrayed. Since I read about classic Hollywood, it was interesting to see famous names like MGM mogul Meyer, Thalberg (for whom the honorary Oscar award was named), Hearst and Welles come to life on screen, albeit all in unflattering characterizations.
Director David Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt captured the era beautifully, reminiscent of the black-and-white deep focus style by Welles’s cinematographer Gregg Toland (unjustly snubbed by Oscar back then) for “Citizen Kane.” The screenplay by Jack Fincher, David’s father, was as witty and eloquent as its gregarious subject matter.
For fans of “Citizen Kane” and golden age Hollywood as a whole, “Mank” is a definite must-watch. But for those who do not share this interest in vintage cinema, I’m afraid they may not share that sentiment.
This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”
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