Mank (2020) is a really great looking film. It was shot with a RED 8K camera in Super 35mm, and mastered in 6K Dolby Vision. The results are truly stunning.
The story is about Herman Mankiewicz who ‘co-wrote’ Citizen Kane with Orson Wells. It’s a fusion of the ‘washed up’ alcoholic writer story, struggling to complete the screenplay for Citizen Kane, intercut with poignant flashbacks over the course of his career (handled in much the same way as the screenplay he’s writing).
Mank (Gary Oldman) is wrestling with the screenplay, but it’s skipped over in favour of flashbacks from the screenwriter’s past. It’s more about his life journey getting to that place (after being in a car crash). In the suffering writer story the writing is never really focused on. It’s just something there in the background, a handy metaphor for the sweat and tears of life, and a useful Hollywood shortcut to describe a character trying to be true to him/herself (much the same can be said of any career in a ‘Hollywood movie’, with different careers representing shortcuts for an assortment of values and dilemmas). Examples of the suffering writer character appear in films like: Sunset Blvd., Barton Fink, The Shining, Adaptation, and Sideways.
As much as it’s about Mank, the film is also covers the Hollywood studio system, and US politics — how the rich and powerful can buy political power in America.
In the film, Mank would like to be perceived as the serious voice of truth. At best he’s more of an observer of the truth, rather than someone who changes reality. At worst he turns out to resemble something more like Hearst’s court jester.
I have no idea how historically accurate the film is. It’s highly probable that it’s taken huge liberties with the facts. Orson Wells comes out looking pretty bad. Hearst is the man with money and power. He enjoys leading the life of the media mogul with his own court. He enjoys Mank’s refreshing honesty, so long as Mank knows his place.
The story plays out in dramatic scenes, which are like set pieces. Then it cuts back to the suffering writer in his bed. It goes from the dramatic high of the flashback to a low. While the flashbacks emulate Citizen Kane (which chronicles the life-journey of Kane in a complete arc), in Mank it’s more like a random selection of moments so it doesn’t feel as coherent or satisfying. The end result is a little disjointed and doesn’t quite maintain its momentum.
Ultimately, Mank is a loving homage to the golden era of Hollywood. The monochrome aesthetic is truly gorgeous. There’s a lot of level low camera angles, extreme depth of field, and a stunning night scene (shot using the day-for-night technique). The film score (Trent Reznor, Atticus Rossis) is impressively retro-Hollywood without being too imposing (the soundtrack is in mono, continuing the retro quality).
Just sit back and take in the full glory of the aesthetic experience. But don’t expect too much from the story itself.