Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature
When you are trying to imitate a master, you have to be careful that you don't make yourself look worse by comparison. Unfortunately for Mank, that is exactly what happens.
Mank is the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who is laid up with a broken leg in Oklahoma while writing the script for Orson Well's classic Citizen Kane. He is helped by secretary Rita Alexander (Lilly Collins) as his story that has led him to this task is told in flashback. In those times we see the often drunk Mank encountering those who would be the inspirations for the characters in Kane: William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). As he navigates the world of the powerful in the media, his inebriation continues to spiral seemingly out of control until he is forced into the task before him.
In order to create even more of a bond to the subject matter, director David Fincher decided to film the movie in a style that mirrored Kane: black and white, very stylized shots, and a strong 1930's aesthetic. For the first half-an-hour, this actually makes for a diverting and entertaining experience until you start to understand that the story here isn't worth telling.
Mank is an awful person who gives us no reason to like him. He quotes liberally from high and obscure literature to convince us how educated he is. But all he is is a raging ball of cynicism and envy. The more he hobnobs with the rich and powerful, the more utterly obnoxious he becomes in his own self-righteousness. There is a trope in stories about the drunk who will be the only one willing to tell the truth. Their alcoholism is there to numb the pain they feel at seeing the world as it actually is. But Mank only sees the world through such an odd lens.
The movie is weirdly political and Marxist. Capitalism is decried and socialism is held up as an ideal. I've often said that if your story becomes a sermon you may have lost your way. And this movie serves as a sermon on socialist ideals.
In his personal life, Mank is abhorrent. He has an odd flirty thing going on with Rita, even though her husband is at war and he is married himself to poor Sara (Tuppence Middleton). His lack of fidelity is glossed over as a quick when it makes it impossible for him to be sympathetic. We are meant to feel his struggle at being the only honest man in the room being willing to speak truth to power. But his own moral turpitude makes his charges ring hollow. There is nothing wrong with making a story about flawed people, but the point is that we are to see the humanity behind their flaws. Mank, and everyone else in the movie, are ALL flaws. When Mank finally builds up to having a confrontation with Wells (Tom Burke), you forget why telling this story even mattered.
The only thing that keeps this movie afloat in any way are the performances of Oldman, Collins, and Dance. Oldman is great at everything he does, but he isn't given a lot to do. Mank has a lot of dialogue but all of them are stylized cynical rants. Collins was unrecognizable to me at first as she disappears into this role. She has a backbone of decency and is meant to be a stand-in for the audience as she slowly comes to understand and care for Mank. And I have been of Dance for a long, long time, even before his time on Game of Thrones. He has a gravity about him with his husky voice and piercing eyes that you can believe he is a man of great power.
Ultimately Mank feels like a poorly made fan-film that is trying to use some of the shine from Citizen Kane to make itself and its message burn brighter.
But that kind of borrowed glory only serves to remind us where the real artistry lies.