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Mank (2020) Film Review | Style over Substance

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Today i’m going to be reviewing Mank. Now i don’t know about you guys but a film about all the Hollywood that’s presented in black and white, seems a little pretentious to me. But it may be justified so hold your typewriter then hear me out.

Mank (2020) Film Review And My Opinion

Mank tells the story of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J Mankowitz, as he writes the iconic 1941 film citizen Kane. Mankowitz writes he remembers the people in his life that inspired the characters in his screenplay. Let’s start by addressing the color or lack thereof.

The last 40 years of cinema has been full of technological innovation including those increasing multiples of resolution sizes that films are being shot in. The biggest technological innovation has undoubtedly been CGI which has helped create incredible films. Essentially we live in a world of endless cinematic possibilities. Yet there are modern filmmakers that choose to take us back into film history to before the late 1930s when color began being widely used.

These black and white films occasionally trickle down into mainstream media likely because they’ve made an impact on the festival circuit or because they have big names attached to them. Films such as Schindler’s list, Lahan, Roma, The White Ribbon, Francis Ha, The Artist, and more recently The Lighthouse Malcolm and Marie and of course Mank.

I can’t deny that many of these films are great examples of expert filmmaking. You can see that based on the number of awards that they have won. Personally though i love learning about film history i just don’t enjoy watching black and white films.

Does this invalidate my opinions as a film critic? Well… i’m sure many people would say yes. I would argue that i can appreciate and analyze the craftsmanship that goes behind a film without enjoying it on a personal level. One partial exception to my dislike of modern black and white films is Pleasantville which utilizes both color and black and white at different points in order to serve its unique plot.

Though Mank does not use color i think it did use black and white with purpose to bring to life the era it is portraying. It does this in several ways. The mono oral sound mix gives people’s voices that unique radio host quality that older films have which was accompanied by a specially recorded soundtrack.

The film also uses slow fades as transitions and even incorporates type written scene headings like the ones you would find in a screenplay. The cinematography is undoubtedly inspired by Citizen Kane itself, with the use of clever framing and slow pans as well as those signature deep focus shots.

It’s certainly not just a modern film that’s turned black and white. There are very clear technical decisions that make the experience of watching Mank similar to the experience of watching a 1930s film. I very much enjoyed spotting these details.

Mank also cleverly utilizes VFX which for the most part was surprisingly undetectable by the menagerie of animals at the Hearst castle. Basically what i loved most about this film was the thing i thought i would hate. It makes sense for an urge to Hollywood to be in black and white especially when it’s this well-crafted. It’s an homage to film history to citizen Kane, however what it isn’t is historically accurate. Much like the trial of the Chicago 7 which was the last topic.

Mank makes some important changes to the truth and uses these as the basis for the most meaningful parts of the plot. First of the driving event of the flashbacks in the film is the 1934 California gubernatorial election.

The film suggests that Mankowitz supports Upton Sinclair. When in truth he was an outspoken conservative and seems to have actually donated to Sinclair’s rival Frank Mariam’s campaign, to imply that someone’s entire political beliefs are the opposite of what they were is quite a significant change to make.

Undoubtedly a modern audience would have been far less sympathetic to a hero with these political views. Indeed he is constantly compared to Louis B Mayer who serves as one of the film’s bad guys with his staunch conservative views and fake we’re all in this together show.

One thing the film does get right is Maya asking his employees to cut their pay and promising that he would pay it back which he never did. Back to Mankowitz. So one of the key plot points that makes him likeable turns out is entirely false. Unfortunately the film doesn’t stop there.

The main narrative that follows Mankowitz’s experience writing Citizen Cane ends by suggesting that he was solely responsible for the script and that Orson Welles did not contribute to the writing. It’s here where the film becomes very disappointing as it tarnishes the reputation of one of the cinema greats.

Much of the things shown in the film are based on a 1971 New Yorker article by Pauline kale entitled raising Kane which claims that Orson Welles did not write a single line of the shooting script. The claims made in this article have been repeatedly discredited.

The most widely accepted version of what happened comes from an analysis of the surviving drafts of the screenplay that was done by Robert l Carringer in 1978. He concluded that though Mankowitz was the main author of the drafts written at the Victorville ranch where the film’s narrative takes place.

It was the additions and revisions by wells that were pivotal to the final screenplay including the adding of important new scenes. It astounds me that a film about one of the greatest films in film history bases its plot on information that has been proven false. I do understand that this film is not about Orson Welles and that is meant to be about Mankowitz’s life and who he was as a person. With that said why does it then spend so much of the film focused on people besides Mankowitz.

In the first act they had me invested in this smart-mouthed writer who could talk himself out of any situation but who struggled with alcohol and gambling. This was true of the real Mankowitz even down to that dollar coin toss bet. Though he didn’t literally save a whole German village from fascism he did help a significant amount of refugees.

These are the parts of Mank that shone the brightest for me. This is the man i wanted to learn more about but instead the film diluted his story with unnecessary and untruthful politics both of the state and of the film industry.

Conclusion

In essence, Mank is a creative film that is stuck between being a beautiful homage to 1930s Hollywood shown through the eyes of a troubled writer. An inaccurate depiction of the said writer and his work framed by spectacles tinted with modern expectations.

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