By Melanie Morningstar

Kim Batterham, Head of Cinematography at AFTRS and I saw Mank. We had a diametrically opposed reaction to the film; it’s as if we saw two different movies.

First, let’s talk about why Kim loved it. I asked him what he knew about the film before he saw it. He said he knew that the film had been written by David Fincher’s father, Jack, and that it was intended to be David Fincher’s first feature film. After David Fincher’s impeccable track record as a director (Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club, to name a few), he made Mank for Netflix. Kim said that he also knew quite a lot about the making of Citizen Kane. Kim is a big fan of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane’s cinematographer). Kim reckons this is the culmination of everything Fincher has learned through his career.

Kim was transported to Mank’s world from the outset. He was along for the ride. Even though he’s a cinematographer, he doesn’t look at the technical aspects of a film right away. He needs that emotional kick we all feel when the lights go down and the curtain goes up. There was nothing in the script or technical aspects that took him out of the film at any stage.

Kim says “I admire Fincher’s work, he’s an incredible director. Everything he does has a visual impact on the viewer. I can’t think of a dud film he’s ever done. For me, I was in the film till the very end. There were no flat spots or waiting for things to happen or anything like that.”

I asked if he knew anything about the history of San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s real home. Kim has been there and taken the tour.

When I asked Kim if he thought Fincher was going for that ‘40s noir look, he explained in technical terms why it’s difficult to get that richness of contrast. He didn’t feel like he was in a 1940s film, slavishly trying to recreate the look; but that he was in the 1940s through the visual language.

Why wasn’t he focused on the technical aspects of the film? Kim was watching Gary Oldman. He was riveted by the performances. Kim is sure Oldman will probably win an Oscar; or be nominated. He added that he didn’t think there were any casting missteps at all. “Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies (Hearst’s mistress) was brilliant.”

When he walked out of the screening, Kim was high. He’d watched something that really transported him for two hours; noting there were a few times when he was genuinely moved.  And he was just dazzled by the craft. “I could only dream of doing work like that,” he added.

What would he tell friends at a dinner party about why they should see Mank?  “I would say two things – first and foremost to me, the performances were so lovely, I would just go and see it for that alone. Good acting is just rare, and nuanced acting rarer. And to see how David Fincher treats history; I considered it to be affectionate compared to other films he makes which are quite cold. They are thrillers, but this is a film that obviously has love in it, and for Fincher the love of his father, it comes across as special to me.”

WHY I HATED MANK

Let me begin by saying I know almost nothing about the mechanical process of compositing or colouring in the edit suite. I don’t know the limitations. Also, I know nothing about how one shoots a film digitally to make it look black and white. What I do know is that this film failed miserably if it was going for the ‘40s noir look. I could tell from the opening scene that this was going to be a stinker, and in that sense it didn’t disappoint.

This is a film about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer responsible for Citizen Kane; still considered one of the greatest films ever made. There is a little backstory about who Orson Welles was; but not enough. I know this film is about Mank; but how could it possibly not be about Orson Welles as well? Twenty-four year-old Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood from New York after he wrote and performed radio play War of the Worlds, based on the book by H. G. Wells. There was no television at the time, everyone got their information from newspapers or radio. Millions of Americans thought there was really an alien invasion, and it made Orson Welles the hottest storyteller of the time. Everyone clamoured for him, RKO Pictures gave him full control over anything he made; unheard of at the time. (The movie doesn’t even explain why Hearst was so powerful, there needed to be context for that too.)

There is so much wrong with Mank, I don’t know where to begin. First of all, it was such a rich subject matter one would have thought it impossible to make it bland. But, somehow, Fincher managed to do just that. When we are introduced to Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, there is no context. One could easily make a film about the real characters in that writer’s room alone. There’s no backstory, no context, no reason for younger audiences to care about who they were.

The studio bosses are caricatures of the cigar-chomping know-nothings – getting in the way of creatives; the real people who built tinsel-town.

The casting was so bad that even though it literally indicates on screen when a scene is a flashback, I still couldn’t tell which character was his wife back in New York or his secretary in California. My guess is that Mank’s wife would never have used cheap two-dimensional Brooklynese; this is not 42nd Street. He was a writer, a lover of words.

I don’t think the movie ever expresses how important Citizen Kane was as a movie. Yes, you get the bullshit about the real media magnate (think of Murdoch in the ‘40s with only radio and newspapers to inform the world), but I doubt that Mayer (from MGM), Mank and William Randolph Hearst would have hung out together at San Simeon. The movie doesn’t even tell you that San Simeon is Hearst’s Castle (now a famous heritage site you can tour).

Gary Oldman as the drunk Mank overplays his hand due to bad directing and script. Obviously, Mank is an alcoholic, but Welles knows that when he hires him (it appears that he’s kitted out with something to drink in his private writer’s bungalow – I couldn’t figure out if it was lemonade or gin). He’s shacked up in the desert, with a two-dimensional secretary and a one-dimensional physiotherapist, far away from the temptations of the big city. So why, when finding his liquor in his bungalow does Welles or his proxy smash it up over and over again. We got it the first time; we got it the second time; and yes, the third.

Tom Burke gives a brilliant performance as Welles, but the script gives him nothing to do. He sounds like Orson Welles; he’s done his homework. But really, is that the best the filmmakers could give him to work with?

What should have been lush, grand and momentous is ultimately a crappy two-dimensional piece of rubbish; I was so looking forward to seeing Mank; I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I did.

Without giving away any of the story, the best part for me was the credits. In USA, there is a channel called Turner Classic Movies on which Ben Mankiewicz is a host and critic. He is Herman’s grandson, and you can see his name if you wait long enough. It gave me a real thrill to know that Ben had been some part of this potentially great production.

As Horatio says in Hamlet “the description on her (his) face was more in sorrow than in anger”. Such a crying shame.

Oh yeah, it’s also way too long…

Mank is streaming on Netflix now.

Shares:

Leave a Reply