[Screen It]


(2020) (Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried) (R)

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Drama: An outspoken, alcoholic screenwriter has sixty days to write a scathing screenplay about a powerful newspaper magnate he socialized with years earlier.

It's 1940 and Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz (GARY OLDMAN) is a well-known but now pretty much washed-up screenwriter who's worked for several Hollywood studios and is known not only for his drinking, but also his penchant for saying whatever's on his mind.

Tapped by young upstart filmmaker Orson Welles (TOM BURKE) to write a screenplay for him in sixty days, Herman -- who's just survived a car crash that's broken his leg -- is whisked off to a remote home in the desert by Welles' collaborator, John Houseman (SAM TROUGHTON). There, the scribe is to be cared for by Frieda (MONIKA GOSSMANN), a German nurse, and Rita Alexander (LILY COLLINS) who will serve as his assistant, including taking his dictation and then typing up Herman's pages.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the script is to be about powerful California newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (CHARLES DANCE), based in part on Herman's various interactions with the man and his actress girlfriend, Marion Davies (AMANDA SEYFRIED), in the past.

As seen through various flashbacks to earlier years that include Herman's long-suffering wife, Sara (TUPPENCE MIDDLETON), we see the scribe bringing a new young writer, Charlie Lederer (JOSEPH CROSS), into his studio fold while also introducing his younger brother, Joseph (TOM PELPHREY), to the movie world. That includes meeting MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer (ARLISS HOWARD), and his right-hand man, Irving Thalberg (FERDINAND KINGSLEY).

With the story jumping back and forth through time, Herman's interactions with those figures, both good and bad, end up influencing his work, while his drinking threatens to undermine his ability to meet Orson's deadline.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

The adage in storytelling is "write what you know," and while plenty of authors, playwrights, and screenwriters have done quite well for themselves concocting characters and stories out of thin air, they still often include their real-world experiences into their works, no matter how fantastical or otherwise far-removed from their reality the overall project might be.

That would certainly explain why screenwriters and directors like to tell stories about Hollywood, past and present. Of course, sometimes that's just to give outsiders an inside, behind the scenes tour of what goes on in the industry. But for others, there are occasionally ulterior motives that need to come out in some sort of veiled or sometimes quite obvious way.

I have no insight into the motives -- if any, besides telling a compelling tale -- behind director David Fincher teaming up with his late screenwriter father Jack Fincher with the movie "Mank," but it clearly focuses on the "write what you know" mantra. It's about Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz, a name forgotten to those outside the industry (and likely to many inside it), but that resonated back in the 1930s and '40s.

Born before the turn of the century, Mank worked as a newspaper correspondent for the Chicago Tribune before becoming a drama critic for The New York Times and The New Yorker. Known for his intellect and wit, he was tapped to work in Hollywood and helped fashion the scripts -- without credit -- for notable films such as "Pride of the Yankees" and "The Wizard of Oz."

But it was his screenplay for "Citizen Kane" that made him most famous (he shared the Best Screenplay Oscar with director Orson Welles) and infamous in the industry and nearby environs, what with the veiled but fairly obvious take-down of none other than William Randolph Hearst.

The tale of him writing that screenplay, along with flashbacks to his earlier years in the biz as well as his interactions with Hearst in San Simeon where the scribe was viewed as something of the erudite court jester are what make up this terrific film that, so far, is the best movie of 2020. Expect lots and lots of Oscar nominations for this offering that, if you like or especially love movies about Hollywood of old, is pure cinematic catnip.

Gary Oldman (a lock for all sorts of award love) plays Mank as a seriously flawed but dry-humored intellectual who's so interesting that you simply can't take your eyes off him, even for those who hate black and white films. Yes, Fincher the son (also a nominee lock) and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (ditto) have made this offering look like it could have played in theaters during the Great Depression and it's simply gorgeous to behold in all of its many-shaded, monotone glory.

As is the screenplay by the late Fincher (who died in 2003 but should get some posthumous award attention) that pays homage and then some to Mank's style of dialogue-heavy writing that was designed to be the heartbeat and driving force of his scripts.

Some of the story focuses on Mank in the present where he's holed up in a desert villa (that's dry in more ways than one) to make sure he writes the script commissioned by Welles (Tom Burke) in just sixty days. At least for his handler and Welles' collaborator (Sam Troughton), Mank's recently broken leg in a full cast means he's likely not to wander far while being cared for by a German nurse (Monika Gossmann) and a personal assistant (a terrific Lily Collins who could get a best supporting nom) who takes his dictation and turns that into typed pages.

The rest of the film hops around through various years in the 1930s -- all identified by on-screen text written like a screenplay's time and location descriptors -- where we see Mank with his wife (Tuppence Middleton), brother (Tom Pelphrey), MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), that studio's production chief, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and the two figures most pivotal to shaping what would become "Citizen Kane."

And that's Hearst (a regal but steely Charles Dance) who enjoys having the writer around for his witty remarks, and that man's actress girlfriend, Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried), who's friends with Mank who serves as her confidant of sorts. As their interactions and his work in Hollywood play out, we see -- at least for those familiar with "Kane" -- how they ultimately influence what appears in that movie that's argued by many as the greatest film of all time.

It's possible that regular moviegoers won't be as blown away by this offering as critics and those in the industry will be, what with its "inside baseball" elements. But if you like watching auteurs at the top of their game, you won't need to know Rosebud from RKO to enjoy the splendidly crafted offering that had me hooked from the vintage style opening credits to the more modern ones that roll at the end. "Mank" is simply terrific and thus rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed November 18, 2020 / Posted November 20, 2020

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