David Fincher is one of American cinema’s true visionaries, so it makes sense that he’d be attracted to the story of the making of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Yet rather than fixating his gaze on the wunderkind auteur behind that film—often regarded as the greatest yet made—Fincher has, with Mank, instead chosen to focus on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the brash, boozy screenwriter who penned its script. Or, rather, helped pen it, since the precise authorship of Welles’ classic has long been in dispute, both by the principals themselves, who tussled over credits, and later by critics, most famously Pauline Kael, who in her 1971 The New Yorker essay “Raising Kane” argued, controversially, that Mank’s artistry was most directly responsible for Citizen Kane’s greatness. Such contentious debates are now themselves a part of Hollywood lore, and Fincher dives headfirst into them with meticulous flair, aiming in the process to engage both cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike.
That the Zodiac and The Social Network director generally succeeds is a testament to his own formidable talent, here felt in every expertly manicured composition, sculpted to resemble a frame found in a 1940s film. Shooting on digital, Fincher crafts an homage to the early days of celluloid, awash in gorgeously radiant and angular chiaroscuro lighting, transitional fades to black, and faux cigarette burns to indicate where the (non-existent) reel changes should occur. Also denoting the location of each new scene with on-screen text taken from a script, Fincher creates a modern-day facsimile of a feature from the era of Citizen Kane—an impressive feat that’s almost too perfectly achieved, the material calling such intense attention to its own form that it almost suffocates under the weight of its own self-consciousness.
Written by Fincher’s late father Jack, Mank (on Netflix Dec. 4, and in theaters now) is a film at war with itself—simultaneously heartfelt and chilly; ravishing and wooden; boisterous and airless—which also goes for its center of attention. As embodied by a charismatically schlubby Gary Oldman, the perpetually hungover and disheveled Mank is a talented scribe with a gift for off-the-cuff bons mots, a fondness for grandiose gestures and behavior, an addiction to booze and betting big, and an idealistic streak that borders on the self-destructive. When we first meet him, he’s retreating to North Verde Ranch with a broken leg (courtesy of a car accident) to begin work on his collaboration with Welles (Tom Burke), who suggests their partnership at woozy Mank’s hospital bedside while dressed in a black hat and cloak, and sporting a dark goatee, as if he were the devil proposing a Faustian bargain. Welles is one of two titanic forces whom Mank will soon engage in personal and professional battle, and the fact that the screenwriter is wounded and incapacitated from the start says much about his chances of victory.
Echoing Citizen Kane’s flashback-heavy script, Mank charts its protagonist’s efforts to write said opus from his ranch bed—where he’s tended to by dictation-taking secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), German nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann); and harping Welles associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton)—while repeatedly jumping back to Mank’s earlier 1930s days working at MGM for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), getting his brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) into the business, and cavorting with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend/benefactor, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). It’s Mank’s intimate experiences in and around the media titan’s San Simeon castle that compel him to base Kane on Hearst—a bite-the-hand-that-feeds decision that, given Hearst’s formidable clout (and friendship with Mayer), puts the already on-the-rocks Mank in dire career trouble, not to mention threatens his relationship with Davies, who feels rightly betrayed by this turn of events.
That Hollywood intrigue, as well as Mank’s disgust over Mayer and company’s support for Republican candidate Frank Merriam over socialist Upton Sinclair (with whom Mank sympathized) in the 1934 California gubernatorial race, forms the basis of Mank’s drama, which is rooted in all sorts of inside-baseball nitty-gritty. Nonetheless, though Fincher grounds the film in period-specific names, issues, dilemmas and industry developments, he never allows them to overwhelm his more basic portrait of a brilliant man who recognized and attacked the greedy, cutthroat ugliness of the system in which he toiled, even as he strove to create an operatic (if not Shakespearean) work of art from within it. His Mank is a larger-than-life figure who expresses his principles with sardonic wit, uninhibited verve, and bull-in-a-china-shop imprudence.
Mank beautifully captures the contradictions of its hero and the ruthlessness of glitzy Tinseltown. Yet Fincher’s scrupulous aesthetics—every wisp of cigarette smoke pluming perfectly; every note of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score recalling those struck by Bernard Herrmann and his contemporaries—have the effect of transforming the action into a meta pantomime. That quality is then compounded by the sluggishness of some of Mank’s middle passages, which deftly synthesize historical fact and rumor, but fail to generate a sense of urgency, or complex intrigue. The result is a film that occasionally comes across as strikingly static, even when its narrative resounds with timely echoes, most notably during Mank’s objection to Mayer and Thalberg’s use of propagandistic “newsreels” to manipulate the public into opposing demonized-socialist Sinclair.
Those shortcomings are never totally surmounted, but Fincher’s latest still thrives courtesy of Oldman’s magnetically scruffy turn as the besieged screenwriter, and Seyfried’s winning performance as Davies, a bleach-blonde starlet and mistress who’s as earnest as she is sneakily smart. As epitomized by a prolonged conversation between Mank and Davies while traversing Hearst’s lavish grounds—the gardens populated by elephants, giraffes, and screaming monkeys—their rapport proves the highlight of Mank, lending the affected proceedings a much-needed measure of soulfulness.
Ultimately, Mank is a poison pen letter to the Hollywood of yesterday, which it depicts as a cesspool run by avaricious, disingenuous tycoons who cared only about lining their own pockets. It’s also, however, a sincere celebration of the gifted writers whose creativity is the lifeblood of cinema—albeit one that, by foregrounding director Fincher’s own imposing behind-the-camera artistry at every turn, winds up ringing a bit hollow.