Synopsis – 1930’s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane.
My Take – It is a known fact that many critics, filmmakers, and members of the audience consider Citizen Kane (1941) to be the greatest film ever made. A film which launched the career of auteur Orson Welles as an actor, writer, director and producer. While the film was nominated at the Academy Awards in nine categories, it ended up winning only one, for Best Writing (Original Screenplay), an award Welles shared with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
But in 1971, American film critic Pauline Kael, in two widely discredited consecutive issues of The New Yorker magazine stirred controversy by arguing that Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for the Citizen Kane script, and not Orson Welles. An implication or fact which years later has become the subject of David Fincher’s first feature directorial in six years since 2014’s Gone Girl.
Though Fincher has been more than busy by steering creatively on Netflix, and by actively producing House of Cards, Mindhunter and Love, Death and Robots, but with this passion project, which he had originally planned to film it between The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999), he marks an exciting return to the big screen storytelling by adapting a screenplay written by late father, Jack Fincher, about one of the most notorious, fascinating screenwriters in cinematic history.
While biopics usually indulge in checking off the beat-by-beat life excerpts, ignoring a specified vision for depicting their real-life protagonists in favor of broad strokes. Here, thankfully as a director David Fincher takes a different, more exuberant approach, one deeply celebratory of the sentimental emotionalism of ’30s film-making while remaining deeply cynical about the dark, greedy underbelly that sustained studios, all while focusing on a writer struggling to finish what would continue to be known as a masterpiece even decades later.
Shot completely in lustrous black-and-white, director Fincher‘s latest is a stylistic exercise and a work of craft, and without a doubt one of the exceedingly modern filmmaker’s best. There’s hardly any false note in the performances, the production design, and score, making it the biggest contender for Netflix in the upcoming awards season.
The story follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) aka Mank, a witty alcoholic screenwriter, who is generally respected but labeled by many to be difficult to work with. In the 1930s, at the height of the studio system, he was one of its most sought-after names, punching up many of the era’s most famous films with his signature wit and effortlessly fast-paced dialogue. But now recovering from an auto accident in 1940, broken down, he is tasked with holing up at a Victorville, California ranch to work on a film project for rising stage and radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and his assistant, John Houseman (Sam Troughton).
Welles tells Mank that the script needs to be completed in sixty days, and that the ranch is a dry one, meaning the lush writer can’t have any liquor until work is completed. The good news about the project is that Welles’ studio, RKO, has given him free reign to do whatever he wants without interference. For inspiration, Mank looks back on his time working for MGM and decides to create a film based around William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), a millionaire but lonely newspaper tycoon whose attempt to launch a political career flopped but is lucky to have the lovely support of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a much younger actress.
With the assistance of his new secretary and typist, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a bedridden Mank puts to paper one of the most controversial and celebrated motion pictures of all time in the form of Citizen Kane, despite many naysayers including his own brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey).
The story unfolds non-linearly and gorgeously rendered in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and colorist Eric Weidt while deploying visual techniques most heavily associated with Citizen Kane. This is a film that displays its heart and ideals proudly and boldly at every turn. For director Fincher, it is one of his most earnest works and it does feel far more personal and vital to the filmmaker. It is also a filmmaker’s film, a film from an artist who wants to express the difficulties of making art. Studio heads and writing committees scramble for anything that can sell, losing themselves in the glitz and glamour of their own illusions, while Mank sits there in the middle hoping to say something real. Citizen Kane is that moment, it seems, and Mank recognizes the opportunity that presents for its central character to exorcise his personal and professional demons on the page.
The film is about the context around Citizen Kane, the tarnished realities of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the seductive power of filmed imagery and how a man who was once a friend not just to Hearst, but to Marion Davies, too, would decide to write about them against the advice of everyone in his life. Citizen Kane was already a politically and dramatically powerful work, but this film dramatically depicts the writer’s life as something almost as tragic and misunderstood as Hearst’s.
During his time in the studio system, Mankiewicz was a masterful talker who took ludicrous and costly gambles inside and outside the boardroom. Like many screenwriters to this day, Mank has the ability to walk into a meeting with executives and convince them that he has an idea for a huge hit simply by bluffing his way through discussions.
It is also impossible to watch this film and not draw parallels to modern day politics. As here, director Fincher tackles the subjects of fake news, corporate election rigging, muckraking, and wealthy elites who refuse to see Nazis as a genuine threat to the American way of life.
As with any recent Fincher effort, this one too is a sumptuous looking film and a technical marvel. The black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, who shot both seasons of Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter, and astoundingly hasn’t done any narrative feature work before, is assured and captivating. The camerawork nicely captures all of the lovingly recreated period sets, details, and costumes, but also proves that black and white digital cinematography can be just as convincing if employed with care. The score from frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is more swinging, melodic, and big band heavy than one would probably associate with the composers.
Yes, the film, despite many efforts doesn’t quite escape some trappings of the genre, like the exasperated but understanding wife of the tortured genius, Sara Mankiewicz (Tuppence Middleton) or the frequent praise showered on the tortured genius’s genius. Most viewers (like myself) may also have a hard time following the action of the first 45 minutes or so, as it introduces many long-forgotten Hollywood stars and filmmakers of the 1930s scene after scene. Still, the final product is a beautiful and bold exercise that amounts to more than what it might have been in lesser hands.
As anyone would have guessed, Gary Oldman delivers yet another powerhouse performance filled with memorable moments, many shades and plenty of pithy one-liners. His best scenes are with Amanda Seyfried, who is outstanding here, infusing Hearst’s longtime mistress with pluck and self-awareness that allows her to carry on thoughtful conversations with Mank, the only person who seems to take her seriously. Lily Collins is fabulous, Charles Dance is suitably imperious, and Tom Pelphrey adds a needed nudge of humanity as Herman’s brother and fellow screenwriter who was always stuck on the outside of his brother’s success, even as he carved out more conventional inroads for himself in the film business.
While Tuppence Middleton is excellent as Mank’s long-suffering wife and Tom Burke is spot on in playing Welles. In other roles, Tom Pelphery, Sam Troughton, Jamie McShane, Arliss Howard, Jamie McShane, Joseph Cross, Monika Grossman, and Ferdinand Kingsley are also good. On the whole, ‘Mank’ is a deeply personal, electrifying, and entertaining effort from director David Fincher that leaves one hell of a mark.
Directed – David Fincher
Rated – R
Run Time – 131 minutes