DIRECTED BY: David Fincher
STARRING: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore and Monika Grossman
Follows screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s tumultuous development of Orson Welles’ iconic masterpiece Citizen Kane.
1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles.
After six years since the release of his last film Gone Girl, David Fincher returns with Mank, a period drama set in the Hollywood Golden Age. The story (written by David’s late father Jack Fincher) focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic and compulsive gambler, who worked as a screenwriter who tweaked the screenplays of other writers without earning credit for them. Unemployed in 1939, a newcomer by the name of Orson Welles offers Herman a job and puts him under contract to write a first draft screenplay for his next feature film. Recovering from a car accident, Herman J. Mankiewicz is moved to a remote town outside of Hollywood, with a nurse on site to look after him, a secretary named Rita Alexander there to type up his dictations, and Welles’s associate John Houseman is also there to oversee, update and also keep Herman sober to complete the draft within the timeframe given. As the film showcases how Herman came to be in the predicament he’s in when he is offered the job by Welles, Herman’s script becomes more than he imagined and wants to have credit for it.
From the opening title card to the end credits, there’s no denying that Mank is a technical marvel across the board, with David Fincher’s keen precision to detail on full display here. Even with its digitalised filmmaking, the film transports you back to the classic Hollywood era of film, filming in black-and-white, with its use of cue marks (aka cigarette burns) on screen and also to how the audio is manipulated to have that mono-sound of the time (thanks to sound supervisor and Fincher’s frequent collaborator Ren Klyce). The jumping back and forth between flashbacks to highlight Herman J. Mankiewicz’s success helps balance out the ‘present day’ sequences in which he lies mostly bedridden on a farm outside of Hollywood when working on the first draft of the screenplay, which is wonderfully edited by Kirk Baxter, especially in a sequence in which we focus on the face drunk Herman during the counting of the votes and inevitable result of the 1934 California gubernatiorial election. The film looks at the political climate of the time and also at the role Hollywood played, in particular MGM, in swinging the vote in the favour of Republican Frank Merriam, as author and socialist Upton Sinclair’s campaign looked to obtain guaranteed pensions for all, as well as call for tax reform. Pitching it as communism, MGM, in association with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, produced propaganda newsreels to discredit Sinclair and it’s this particular sub-plot that plays a pivotal role in how the second-half of the film plays out in Herman’s journey, but it is also the moment in which the film pulled me in.
The film also takes a cynical look at the Hollywood clog, particularly in the Great Depression, primarily though the actions of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, who speaks to a group of employees that he calls ‘family’ to work for free for a lengthy period….to which we later find out that no one gained back the amount of money that was promised to them. During a monologue with Herman and his brother Joseph, he tells them that, “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anybody tell you different”, and by the films end this rings true, as Herman J. Mankiewicz’s screenplay is him exorcising his demons out on a page, primarily his relationship with William Randolph Hearst, and while Orson Welles gets the plaudits for his work on Citizen Kane, interestingly enough at the end of the day, out of the nine Academy Award nominations it received in 1942, it only won for Best Original Screenplay. Gary Oldman of course gives a great performance as Herman J. Mankiewicz, a man who understands how the system works and inevitably becomes repulsed by it and begins to burn bridges that can never me mended. Amanda Seyfried also gets a great performance as Marion Davies, actress and William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, who yearns to play particular roles but is typecast almost by Hearst’s request. The rest of the ensemble are really good in their roles too, particularly Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, Arliss Howard as a very animated Louis B. Mayer, Tuppence Middleton as Herman’s wife Sara Mankiewicz, Tom Pelphrey as Herman’s younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and Lilly Collins as secretary Rita Alexander. The costume design work by Trish Summerville is also a standout, as is Erick Messerschmidt’s cinematography, particularly in how he captures the use of natural light and making it stand out within the black and white image, and I wasn’t too sure at first about the score being composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, but it manages to encapsulate the era of that period perfectly. Admittedly however, Mank does take a while to get into its groove and with a runtime of two hours and eleven minutes, I can imagine a few viewers might check out by the half an hour mark, as it makes you feel like the narrative is disjointed with the multiple use of flashbacks and you question whether it’s really going anywhere or not. Also, worth noting, as someone who still hasn’t sat down to watch Citizen Kane in full (I know, I know), it definitely feels like I would appreciate Mank a lot more if I had have seen that first. But I will definitely rectify that in the coming weeks as I plan to rewatch Mank with my father to get his opinion on the matter. Also while I enjoyed the performances of both Tuppence Middleton and Lily Collins, one could argue that their roles are underserved and they’d have a point.
Personally I wouldn’t consider Mank to be one of David Fincher’s best, but I still enjoyed his vision of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s journey and creation of Citizen Kane, with a captivating lead performance by Gary Oldman.