One of the film world’s greats returns to tell the story of another.
David Fincher is back with a film that’s almost impossible to find flaws with. Six years after the spellbinding Gone Girl, the director goes behind the camera again to tell the story behind Citizen Kane, one of the greatest films ever made. Some people remember HBO’s similar attempt back in 1999 which resulted in the fantastic RKO 281. But while that story recounted the various trials faced by Orson Welles in bringing the eventual masterpiece to the screen, Mank looks at the man behind its script. This is the story of the alcoholic, nearly washed-up screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his time spent hidden away in the desert far from Hollywood where he used the experiences of his own tumultuous relationships with the city’s most powerful men to write one of the most daring scripts of all time.
Featuring many top actors in standout roles and performances including Lily Collins, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard and a standout Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Mank instantly emerges as one of the year’s best and perhaps the most telling film Fincher has ever made. If there’s any apprehension in embarking on the journey of Mank, it’s understandable. The film’s structure is reminiscent of Chaplin (one of the best Hollywood biopics ever made) and it’s aesthetic approach calls to mind Soderbergh’s overly-stylized WWII mystery The Good German. But Mank doesn’t feel like a re-tread of the former and it doesn’t fall into the same visual trap as the latter. Instead, it stands on its own; not as a love letter to Hollywood, but as a well-written, superbly shot and all-around provocative look at an idealized world and the figure who dared to challenge it.
It’s hard to combine all of Mank’s many fantastic aspects into a single straightforward review, so please enjoy a brief insight into a few of the film’s most powerful elements.
Any Fincher film is a masterclass in style, from all sides. Whether it’s the otherworldines of San Francisco in The Game, or the evolution of the 20th century in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, each and every Fincher effort is visual wonder that dazzles without ever once feeling overblown or overwhelming as it brings the story’s world to life. Mank follows in this tradition as it uses sharp black and white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt to create two Hollywoods. The first is a rambunctious one full of life and a rich aesthetic which pulls you into vintage tinsel town as one has always imagined it to be. The second, set in the California desert is a softer, more washed out world where regrets of the past and questions about the future are equally wrestled with. Both landscapes give Mank a wholeness that pulls the audience in as they journey back and forth between the two. Meanwhile, scene-like intros in screenplay style that introduce every moment taking place from Mank’s past and a rousing, suspense-filled election night sequence ensure the movie furthers Fincher’s reputation as one of the most visually inventive filmmakers ever to set foot behind a camera.
Speaking of scripts, Mank was blessed with one of the best. Written by Fincher’s own father, Jack, before his death in 2003, the film’s screenplay skillfully moves back and forth between Mank’s time in Hollywood and his place in the fringes among the city’s top players juxtaposed with his struggle to write the mammoth screenplay and hold himself together. Both narratives feature such texture, exploring William Randolph Hearst (Dance), Davies and Louis B. Mayer (Howard) through Mank’s eyes while showing the shell of a man he himself became with true poetry. Just as captivating are the many lines within Mank, each one practically razor sharp. “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours,” the main character states. “All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” Scene after scene, the script’s witty dialogue further pushes Mank to higher glory, making its awards future all but certain in that category. “Why Hearst? Apart from his own blonde Betty Boop, you’re his favorite dinner partner,” Mank is told at one point, referring to the wealthy magnate as the subject of his script. “Have you ever heard of the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey,” he replies.
Movies looking at an aspect of classic Hollywood history never fail to come across as striking given how much the era of the 30s and 40s has been romanticized to death. Mank does an interesting job with it’s script’s setting by recreating it with such intricacy and detail and then letting it speak for itself. The industry during this time is thoughtfully looked at with commentary on the monumental shift from silent films to talkies and the mechanical nine to five nature of life at a studio. But Fincher ensures Mank looks outside the walls of the writers’ room and movie executives’ offices to capture a vivid portrait of California’s political world in late 30s/early 40s. A good section of Mank’s second half is spent following the political race for Governor of California between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam where labels such as communism and socialism and the race to control the state were being fought for by the very wealthy, giving a most vivid picture of a Hollywood that would have long lasting effects.
The presence of Marion Davies is more prevalent here than one might expect. For so long, the one-time A-list actress had been relegated to a mere footnote by history, whose examination of her caused many to simply write her off as the frivolous mistress whose romance with Hearst caused her to be immortalized (in all the wrong ways) in Citizen Kane. Melanie Griffith managed to inject some dignity into her interpretation in RKO 281, but Mank is the first time Davies is looked at as a true person. The actress’ scenes with Mank are so enthralling; both are remnants/survivors of a Hollywood that no longer cares about them. Marion and Mank have each played the Hollywood game and survived it by managing to adapt without losing the core of who they are. He a jaded self-destructive screenwriter and she the ethereal screen goddess who is more self-aware than any starlet on the lot. Marion is so wonderfully shown to be very much on Mank’s level. She reads him and is intrigued by him. The feeling is mutual as Marion is perhaps the one female figure Mank is careful around and cannot outright dismiss; not even if he wanted to.
Mank essentially features two Manks who meet at some point for their third act. The first Mank is seen as someone who exist in the outer city limits of respectable Hollywood, who has been in the room, but on the other side. Mank has been used to this and has been content to occupy the space as his wit and ability has earned him both a career as well as the praise and attention of those who matter in the city. Mank’s solace for his social standing is that he gets to be the eternal observer of the characters who run not just the studio, but society. His observations, coupled with his talent and guts, eventually turns him into the most powerful man in the room, but not before a descent into a slow near-suicide brought about my alcoholism, depression and the relentless nature of tinsel town and its power to drive even someone like Herman J. Mankewicz mad. To call Mank a hero would be beyond generous. The man squarely lives in the anti-hero realm given his usually blase nature and a tendency to look on most of whom he encounters as subjects for his own amusement. Yet there’s something eternally strong and undeniably brave in the amount of blood and life he gives to his script and in the way he looks at the ferocious lions of Hollywood dead in the eyes and doesn’t blink.
Mank’s trailers and posters have shown that the team clearly had fun with the various throwback touches they have been able to inject into the film’s marketing. It’s inevitable that there will be a section of the public which will assume that the film is another entry into the kind of self-congratulatory Hollywood storytelling exercises some tend to turn their noses up at. The good news is that unlike Ryan Murphy’s abysmal Hollywood, Mank isn’t about basking in the nostalgia of a world fantasized by many who were never a part of it. Instead, it’s about the world as it was; the people who existed within it and who they were what that world was through with them as seen through the eyes of one of its keenest observers.