Mank: the frantic lucidity of a film writer

By: José Antonio Michelena


The Film of the Year

Since December, the great film of 2020 is circulating, a pandemic year that condemned us to lock up, to see life from the limits of the home and the screen of the mobile phone, a paradox, a great irony, because what we have had the least in all these months is mobility.

But, in the absence of physical movement, the internet connection gives us the illusion of displacement, the mirage of being everywhere, while social networks provide the illusion of trapping reality, and the fragile desire to live accompanied by a multitude of friends.

So, Mank, is the perfect film to close the season: the story of a screenwriter who develops his best work since the temporary immobility that caused him a traffic accident. Prostrate, in bed, on a bubble-operated ranch, he conceives the film that tops all the charts in the last eight decades: Citizen Kane.

Mank is an approach (illusion of biopic he has been called) to Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank), famous American writer and producer winning an Oscar (shared with Orson Welles) for writing the famous film that delves into the life of William Randolph Hearst.

Mank is a tale that moves in two days from the Hollywood universe in its golden age – the 30s and 40s – with a sharp nod to today’s political reality. The figure of the screenwriter leads and dictates the rhythm and tone of the narrative: a man whose lucidity, ingenuity and culture coexist with almost suicidal addiction to alcohol, gambling and scathing parliaments.

His sparkling caustic humor dialogues won Herman Mankiewicz friends and enemies in the artistic community of his day. In one of the film’s capital scenes, after one of his delusional – and ethyl – speeches, the powerful Louis B. Mayer – disgusted and collectic – told Mank that Hearst – who was directed by the poisoned darts of his tongue on that occasion – paid half his salary at MGM, only because the tycoon enjoyed his oratory.

The Tsar of the American press and his lover, Marion Davies, are always in the focus of storytelling because Mank is built on the avatars of Citizen Kane. It is a correlate, kind of making off of writing the script with visits to the time-space of the story that is said, a dialectical game to understand where Welles’ film came from.

But Mank is not exactly a tribute to Citizen Kane, nor a nostalgic postcard about golden Hollywood, nor a biopic by Herman Mankiewicz. It’s all that (without nostalgia), and also Mank’s vindication as a solo screenwriter of that film masterpiece, as an allied genius to another genius who completed the dream creature in the direction.

As a genuine artistic product of postmodernity, Mank is full of intertexts, cinematic references, but also political ones. A well-noted one is the virulent smear campaign against Upton Sinclair in the California gubernatorian election, by the Democratic party, in 1934. The false documentary to present him as a communist – an obvious example of fake new before social media exists – is a clear allegory with the present.

Black-and-white photography, an effective resource for feeling the time, is one of the film’s greatest virtues, as well as the functionality of its narrative structure, but it is the overwhelming personality of the protagonist that drags us throughout the story. This brilliant jester, with a vocation undaunted by self-destruction, continues to be measured and pulsed with the great figures of his time: William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Orson Welles.

A character of that magnitude had to have a performance in line with the massive measure, and that’s what Gary Oldman gives, who will be difficult to snatch the Oscar as a leading actor. Equally at that point is David Fincher’s direction for this film that will be in the conversation, among the favorites, for the Hollywood Academy Awards in 2021.

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