Mank–Meandering script and technical flaws plague Netflix’s latest black and white drama

Review by C.J. Bunce

It’s one thing to make a film about a notably B-level filmmaker and arrive at a success like the 1994 acclaimed black and white biopic Ed Wood.  But when you try the same thing about one of the best films ever made, you’re practically set up for failure.  It would take some kind of miracle to take Jack Fincher’s clunky, meandering script for the new Netflix film Mank and make it work.  A hodgepodge of character study and Hollywood quotes, plucking half-truths and grand real-life names of Hollywood’s past, Mank misfires from poor directing decisions and camera work, a lack of understanding or attention to re-creating the magic of black and white film in the color era.  What could have been a love letter to one of America’s greatest celebrated films paints a picture of a screenwriter who, rightly or wrongly, comes off as an unlikeable drunk who couldn’t possibly deserve our attention.

Would the real Herman Mankiewicz please stand up?  It’s difficult to believe the same writer who scripted The Wizard of Oz, The Pride of the Yankees, Marx Brothers comedy classics–and Citizen Kane–could be as repellant and revolting as portrayed by Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series and the Harry Potter film series).  All the other characters seem to fawn at the man, but the script doesn’t let us in on the why.

It’s not the acting that tanks Mank It’s the directorial choices of screenwriter Jack Fincher’s son David Fincher (Zodiac, The Social Network, Alien3, Gone Girl) and cinematography of first-time feature filmmaker Erik Messerschmidt, creating a film in black and white without apparently understanding how to make a black and white movie.  The lead actresses sit in shadows for the bulk of the film, as do lead and supporting characters, it’s often difficult to see who is talking because the faces aren’t properly lit–a shame when viewers can tell an effort was underway to showcase the actresses in particular in the same way as the great directors had done starlets the 1930s to 1960s.  It can be done right in the modern era and has been done right, notably in Netflix’s first black and white success, 2018’s Roma, thanks to the prowess of Oscar-winning director and cinematographer Alphonso Cuarón, plus 2011’s The Artist, 1998’s Pleasantville, 1993’s Schindler’s List, 1991’s Dead Again, and on and on back to 1974’s Young Frankenstein and 1973’s Paper Moon.  Writer-director James Mangold filmed his Oscar-nominated Logan in 2017 with an eye toward a black and white theatrical release, and the result was the visually stunning director’s cut Logan Noir.  So it can be done.  But it takes planning, knowledge of colors and contrasts, and understanding lighting and shadows.

Look at any screen image on the Internet from the film (including the three shown here)–nearly every image shows the lack of lighting of faces.  Some of the lighting was probably intentional, some kind of experimental effort to re-envision the magic of the 1930s Golden Age with a smoky noir flare.  Some of the actors are clearly blurred for effect.  Why?  Who knows.  But it just doesn’t work when audiences can’t see the actors and are forced to squint (size of screen doesn’t matter).  Try adjusting the image?  It doesn’t help.  And it’s a shame.  The set-up shots of scenery, where Messerschmidt pulls back to show the grand production locations created by Donald Graham Burt (Zodiac, The Social Network) hint at the potential of the project.  If only the whole film looked like that, then we would only need to address the story problems.

The other reason Fincher and Messerschmidt may have chosen to hide the actors is some of the casting decisions.  Tom Burke (The Hour, State of Play) presents a solid vocal impersonation of Orson Welles, but doesn’t look like him.  Sam Troughton (Alien vs Predator, Robin Hood) neither looks nor sounds like the equally recognizable John Houseman.  But that doesn’t speak to the smart casting of the key supporting actresses, Tuppence Middleton (The Current War, The Imitation Game) as Mankiewicz’s wife, Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments, Mirror Mirror) as Mankiewicz’s secretary, and Amanda Seyfried (Ted 2, Veronica Mars) as actress (and William Randolph Hearst’s mistress) Marion Davies, who Welles and Mankiewicz purportedly based Kane’s mistress on in Citizen Kane.  How well did they perform?  They sound great, but we just can’t see them enough.  Collins in particular seems to evoke a young Audrey Hepburn’s demeanor and poise.  Middleton and Seyfried’s performances are always impressive.  The real world happened in color.  Perhaps Fincher should have tried to reflect that.

As for top acting and character immersion, Arliss Howard′s (Moneyball, Awake, Medium) performance as Louis B. Mayer is the high point of the film, and the one most worthy of Academy attention, including a marvelous plea to his employees to take a temporary pay cut, and a beautiful dressing down of Mankiewicz at a dinner party.  He balances 1930s authenticity with the mannerisms and style of Peter Sellers.  Charles Dance′s eerily reserved take on William Randolph Hearst is also worth watching–again, if only we could see them better.  To their credit Fincher and Messerschmidt slip in some good images along the way, including a woozy montage of Mankiewicz at a 1934 election celebration.

As for story, pushing aside the forced dueling politics of the characters, how off the deep end the script goes to define the personality of Mankiewicz, the massaged truths behind the script creation, and the real-world power of the studio characters vs. the power of Hearst himself–all that remains for Oldman to play is a hollow drunk who speaks almost entirely in the quotations of others.  This can’t be the truth of such a celebrated screenwriter.  Only a brief scene where a caretaker reveals Hitler’s personal hatred of Mankiewicz offers some reason to care about the character, but more reason to empathize for the show’s hero is needed.

One component might justify sitting through the entire film.  Oscar-winning composing team Trent Reznor (The Social Network, Gone Girl) and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl) have assembled a rousing, bombastic score.  If not for the fact that the movie is anything but rousing and bombastic, the music would have helped the movie.  Instead the music feels detached.  It’s just the wrong music for this movie, or the right music for something else.  No matter how you view the disconnect, the music is great as a standalone work.

Caricatures not characters.  Magazine versions of real people, and old stories told and retold.  The truth doesn’t matter, because that’s showbiz.  Sadly, Mank is a promising idea that has been done before (including the Academy Award-winning 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, the 1999 docudrama RKO 281, and the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock).  The latest effort adds little new.  Citizen Kane fans would spend their time better re-watching that classic.  Watch if you’re patient and a fan of the supporting cast, or for the finely crafted 1930s musical score.  Mank is available now streaming on Amazon.


    • I think all the actors did a fine job and the supporting cast playing Welles and Houseman only have a few scenes. But I didn’t feel like Troughton looked the Orson Welles we’ve seen in so many interviews from the day (I liked his snappy, voluminous baritone sound). My key issues with the film are cinematography, writing, and casting was a minor factor.

      • Wait, now I’m confused…Sam Troughton played John Houseman. I thought he did quite well with the voice.
        In any case, I agree on the limited screen time of both Welles and Houseman. It felt strange to see a film about the writing of Kane, and have those two be practically absent.

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