Is Mank the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

People clown on the Oscars for a number of valid reasons, but I’ve always been most fascinated by the Best Actor category. The Academy needs to become more inclusive and it seems to want to become more relevant, but attempts on both fronts feel clunky. There’s a lot of room to improve for America’s supposed arbiters of what makes great cinema great and I do hope they figure it out. I don’t think the answer is a “Popular Film” category or whatever that was, but I do think any move to fix the larger representation problem is a good one.

All that said, I pick Best Actor because I feel like, especially recently, there’s been a streak of wrong choices. In 2017 Gary Oldman won for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which may be one of the ten worst movies nominated for any award in the last ten years. Oldman does strong work, but it’s a heightened performance because it needs to be to survive in a ridiculous movie. Rami Malek won in 2018 as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek was obviously great and really nailed what had to be a difficult challenge, but that movie is even worse than Darkest Hour, with distracting, breakneck edits for no real reason and cliched dialogue even in the most important moments of Mercury’s life. Joaquin Phoenix won as Joker in Joker last year and I feel like that completes the three-peat. Joker is full of capital-c Choices but at a basic level, it’s a remake of King of Comedy that didn’t seem to understand the message of King of Comedy. It’s a weird mess.

All three of those movies are bad, arguably among the worst if not the worst of the nominees in their respective years. Very often the award seems to go to whoever did the Most Acting rather than any other metric of quality. I definitely think all three of those roles are defensible as great performances, but shouldn’t it matter if you did your great work in a bomb or not?

I don’t know if Oldman will win for Mank this year or not, but it’s the most nominated film at this year’s Oscars. This is typical of the Academy, to the point where wasting breath on jokes about the movie with the Oscars as a central plot point being heavily nominated at the Oscars is not necessary. Of course they did, because of course they did. It’s the story of the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz split credit for it, but for decades Hollywood elites argued about who actually was the man behind Kane. Welles directed and starred in it, so he’s the name you know, but “Mank” is the man director David Fincher wants to sell you as the genius.

There’s a few things to know before we move on. This story might have happened the way Fincher tells it, but it almost certainly didn’t and most people agree this version has been discredited over the years. Mank and Welles both created Citizen Kane and you are welcome to argue that one was more important than the other, but Fincher’s version paints Welles as someone out to steal Mank’s hard work. You don’t always lose points for twisting the facts to make a good story, but this is extreme.

Fincher seems to think it’s necessary that Mank be a sole genius with Welles in dark shadows for most of the film. The actor playing Welles does his best, but it comes off as a parody of the director and I assume that’s in Fincher’s directing. Welles isn’t the hero here and he’s arguably the villain, though one of many in the larger story about how Herman J. Mankiewicz couldn’t get out of his own way.

The story goes that Mank was the funniest guy in the room but also the drunkest, both traits most people in his social circle had some of, but never more than him. He worked on a dozen things you love and he’s an icon of this era of Hollywood. That’s apparently not enough, which is why Fincher hangs sole credit for Kane on him. Interestingly, Fincher says the finished product of Mank is a revision from earlier “anti-Welles” versions. I can’t imagine what happened in the first cuts; Welles must have tried to kill him.

Oldman is working extremely hard here, which is why I think he’s a safe bet for the Oscar. This is ten times the movie Darkest Hour was and it’s at least a better performance, though with a smaller gap. You want Mank to “win” every time you see him, but you start to realize early on that won’t happen. He shows up drunk to important meetings and charms his way through parties, but mostly because people have an attitude of “oh, that’s just Mank.” He’s a jester, which mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones and a million other things) tell him directly.

For as bad as the Welles role is, Mayer and Hearst are terrific. The movie is only partially about the actual construction of a screenplay, it’s also about exploring Mank’s life to see how he got his ideas. Mayer’s worldview and political dealings provide the acid and Hearst’s power provides the central character for Citizen Kane. None of these are secrets or inventions for Mank, but they’re explored well and the personalities live up to what they need to get done. Dance especially is impressive and gives an incredible final speech about how we see ourselves in the world and what it amounts to in the end. Amanda Seyfried does a fine job as Marion Davies, but Oldman is the center of even their scenes, so it’s hard to really get into her character. I can’t imagine she’ll win for Best Supporting Actress, but that field is always hard to predict.

If you really love old Hollywood or you really love Citizen Kane or you really love black and white cinema, you’ll probably like Mank. It’s not completely a true story and some of the side stories don’t really go anywhere and it bloats a little bit as it moves into act three, but none of that is really the point. Fincher said he made this because he thinks the idea of Mank writing a brilliant script under the terms that he wouldn’t get credit for it, but then that he did want credit for it, is an interesting enough idea to carry a movie. This is his attempt to prove that as true and we should judge Mank by whether it is or isn’t.

I guess it is, but not by much. The performances are mostly good and sometimes great, and by the established metrics Oldman could certainly deserve his statue for this one, though one hopes we’re looking for something a little more ambitious than this in 2021. Mank is the story of a guy who had to ruin the dinner party or the birthday party to prove a point. Even if the point is sometimes worth making, it’s difficult to watch as a hero to root for, and that’s even before you factor in that he’s drunk to the point of throwing up.

I’m a big fan of Welles, though there are many reasons not to be. He was absurd, aggrandizing, and brash. Mankiewicz certainly had more to do with Citizen Kane than Welles would want you to believe and there is a story in that discussion that’s worth telling. I don’t think it’s this one and Mank feels like too many tales wrapped up in one story as a result. I enjoyed Mank, but I’m squarely in the target audience, and I think anyone who isn’t will struggle with this one. Oldman does the best he could possibly do, but it feels like another movie where the surrounding pieces can’t live up to the central performance. This is a much better movie than all three recent Best Actor films, but those same weird problems with those three are present again in Mank.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is tighter and more consistently makes the point it aims to make. These are very different movies, with Master and Commander focused on keeping complex, busy scenes of naval chaos easily understandable through clear cinematography and Mank almost entirely conversational and black-and-white. The difficulty in Master and Commander is all in the visuals and Mank is all about the central character and keeping us hooked on how he’ll navigate the politics of the big studios and the “great men” he deals with all the time. Both nail the “look” of what they’re doing, but Master and Commander succeeds to a greater degree with the story because it picks one lane and stays in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s not even the best David Fincher movie. The reviews are interesting, with most of them making the point that the politics behind the characters are the central argument and the screenplay production isn’t really the heart of the story. Fincher seems to believe that, but Mank can’t ever decide which story it wants to tell you. I think that’s why it ends up not really connecting with audiences and why people seem to want to praise the visuals and performances but struggle to talk about the story.

You can watch Mank on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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