The story of the screenplay for the greatest American movie ever made.
It’s 1940 and Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is recuperating from a broken leg when he is asked to write a screenplay for a film by Orson Welles (Tom Burke). Mank dictates the story of a newspaper magnate named Charles Foster Kane to his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). Periodically, the story cuts back to the 1930s when Mank and his brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) were working for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) of MGM fame and Mank became an acquaintance of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). While they start off as friends, Hearst’s actions, particularly towards Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) and other liberal platforms, and Mank’s alcoholism lead to a slow and painful separation between the two and eventually to Mank writing a screenplay based on Hearst.
Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood, particularly during one of their “golden ages.” This story is probably the peak of that, since it’s almost entirely about the inner workings of MGM during the 1930s and about the events that led to the writing of Citizen Kane, a film that consistently ranks as being among the best ever made. I’m going to be frank, I think that it’s only because of this self-obsession Hollywood has that this movie was nominated for Best Picture. Even in a year with relatively few releases like 2020, this still should not have been considered in competition for the best movie of the year. Particularly when things like Hamilton and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and even Soul were not given such an honor.
That’s not to say this isn’t a bad movie, but most of it feels like it’s based on gimmicks. The film is shot in black-and-white and the sound is edited so that it seems like it was made in 1940, just like Citizen Kane. A lot of people have the fake “Mid-Atlantic” accent that was so popular at the time for actors, even when they’re not acting. The flashbacks in the film are structured similarly to the film Citizen Kane, a thing which even the movie acknowledges can be hard to follow. They try to make up for it by having a number of titles on-screen which describe the time period and location, but I actually think that addition is an admission that they couldn’t figure out how to convey the passage of time without them.
The performances, though, are amazing. Naturally, Gary Oldman does a great job portraying Herman Mankiewicz, a man frequently stated to be one of the funniest men in the motion picture industry in the 1930s. He’s witty at all times, but deeply flawed, mostly by his alcoholism and his mistreatment of his wife. Amanda Seyfried gives a lot of depth to Marion Davies by making her more observant and smarter than she lets on, something that is probably more accurate than most of her portrayals as a drunk and a golddigger. Charles Dance, who can play a bad guy better than almost any living actor, really just lets the historical Hearst’s dickishness and pettiness seep through and do a lot of the heavy lifting until the third act, in which he takes it up a level.
Overall, it’s a well-performed movie, but I think it would be considered mediocre if it weren’t for Hollywood’s lust for its own history.
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