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Mank

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What it’s about:

It’s a movie within a movie, sort of. Mank tells the story of how one of the most revered cinematic pieces got made through a decade-long process — told from the point of view of its acerbic, hard-drinking screenwriter.

Names you might know:

Mank stars Gary Oldman with a supporting cast that includes Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance, Tom Pelphrey, and Tom Burke. Veteran screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, A Star is Born) is among the producers. Directed by David Fincher director from a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher.

Why it’s worth your time:

Get swept up in a period piece of 1930s Hollywood. Mank is the behind-the-scenes story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and his battle to bring the Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane—the semi-autobiographical story of media magnate William Randolph Hearst—to the screen.

Netflix spares no expense in transporting us to that bygone era. The black-and-white production is an homage to how big studios made movies once upon a time, and that carries over into the directing and acting styles, which are heavily influenced by the period. The powerful score by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) also enhances the time-travel journey. Eagle-eyed viewers will even catch a subtle throwback on the screen at one point—a distinctive cue mark that used to alert projectionists when it was time to manually switch reels.

In the title role, Oscar winner Gary Oldman is totally immersed as the drunk, workaholic, stressed-out Mankiewicz, who was hand-picked by Welles for the project, but feels pressure at every turn. After the rousing success of War of the Worlds, RKO signed the wunderkind Welles to a deal overseeing a movie with complete autonomy. Citizen Kane would become that project, with Mankiewicz and Welles sharing the 1942 Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). Ironically, 80 years later, Mank topped the Oscar nominations with 10 in total, but was shut out of the screenplay category.

The film effortlessly navigates between a bedridden Mank in 1940, convalescing from a car accident and rushing to finish Kane, to various moments a decade earlier as that script becomes a germ of an idea in front of our eyes. Oldman is solid throughout, enveloping the angst and alcoholism of Mankiewicz, despite more than a 30-year-gap between their ages. Amanda Seyfried was nominated in the supporting acting category for the movie’s stand-out performance, as Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. She brings an energy, wide-eyed innocence, and a Brooklyn accent to her role.

It’s 1930 when Mank meets Davies on the set of a movie shoot, followed by a brief encounter with Hearst—or Pops, as she calls him—that leads to a dinner invitation with the rich and powerful publisher. Later, we witness a grand dinner scene at Hearst’s San Simeon estate in 1937, in which an inebriated Mank reveals his plan for Kane to be modeled after Hearst. Weaving in and out of the flashbacks, Mank in 1940 deals with Welles’ right-hand man John Houseman (Sam Troughton), his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Welles himself (Tom Burke), who threatens to take full credit for penning Kane. At one point, Houseman tells Mank that the first draft was “so scattered” people would need “a road map” to follow it.

But it’s Davies who, unbeknownst to her, becomes a large portion of the source material for Mank’s script about Hearst. In Citizen Kane, the character of Susan Alexander—Kane’s mistress and later his second wife—is an aspiring opera singer with little talent whose career is propped up by her influential husband. Heart’s personal and political motives are also fodder for the Kane character, and reminiscent of the 1950s Communist Red Scare. In real life, Welles always denied that Hearst was the sole inspiration for Kane (the official line is that the character was an amalgam of several tycoons of the era) but this film portrays what’s always been the conventional assumption.

Near the end of Mank, a quietly poignant moment crystallizes the relationship between Mank and Davies, who pleads with him to cancel the Kane production.

“I hope, if this gets made, you’ll forgive me,” Mank tells her.

“And I hope, if it doesn’t, you’ll forgive me,” she responds.

The takeaway:

For a history lesson and trip down memory lane, movie fans should not skip Mank. David Finch’s cinematography — shot in the style of Citizen Kane — is worth the two-hour-plus investment. Come for the look, but stay for the acting with top notch performances, led by Oldman and Seyfried.

Watch it with:

While Mank is rated R, there are no sexual situations or nudity. Overall, this is a movie everyone can watch, although younger audiences might not find the content entertaining. Obviously, cinephiles will have a special place in their heart for Mank, and it’s a must-see for anyone studying film.

Follow it up with fellow Oscar nominees from the Watercooler’s Awards section.

Worth noting:

Not only are studio moguls Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg featured, but MGM’s “Dream Factory” is also portrayed in a brief scene. One from the stable of stars is a young girl, clearly meant to be Shirley Temple. Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” himself, makes a cameo as Upton Sinclair, the 1934 Democratic candidate for California governor.

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