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New Escapist Video! “Mank – Review in 3 Minutes”

I’m thrilled to be launching 3-Minute Reviews on Escapist Movies. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute the first three-minute feature film review to the channel, discussing David Fincher’s Mank.

Non-Review Review: Mank

There’s something vaguely reassuring about Mank.

The most obviously and immediately striking aspect of David Fincher’s biopic is how consciously the film is steeped in a very particular time and place. Mank plays out against the backdrop of the thirties and forties, following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he is inspired to develop (and as he actually writes) Citizen Kane. So much of the film deliberately evokes the period; numerous inside jokes and cameos from key Hollywood figures, the stark black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, the way Fincher even frames shots to evoke the period.

However, all of these period elements are juxtaposed with a broader sense of modernity and timelessness. Mank is shot in the same black-and-white style as Citizen Kane, but in a modern aspect ratio. The film features cigarette burns and other markers of classic cinema, but was shot entirely digitally. The film even offers an almost parodic old-fashioned happy ending for most of the major characters, but while telling a story that simply would not have been possible within that studio system.

The result is a movie that celebrates Hollywood without venerating it. Indeed, what distinguishes Mank from many other “films about films” like The Artist or Hugo is the way in which it tempers its nostalgia. Mank doesn’t necessarily long for the past in the way that most Hollywood productions about Hollywood do. This ambivalence to nostalgia is not cynicism or futurism, but a tacit acknowledgement that the past is still present. Mankiewicz might be rubbing shoulder with the players of another era, but the rules remain largely the same.

Indeed, the real joy of Mank is not found its glorification of Hollywood titans or the products of the studio system, but in its celebration of the “supporting players.” The story of the “organ grinder’s monkey” is discussed repeatedly, often as a metaphor for power a hierarchy. Instead, Mank seems to suggest that the relationship is symbiotic. There’s something striking in a movie from a director as venerated as David Fincher that is so openly critical of the various myths of Hollywood like the auteur theory and its cousin “the great man” theory of history.

Mank is the story of a little man, one repeatedly framed as “the court jester” and who does little to push back on that characterisation. As one might expect for a movie about Citizen KaneKing Lear is a frequent point of reference. If so, Mank suggests that the fool has the best view of all.

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