Whenever a movie about movies is released, it unfailingly gets branded a ‘love letter to Hollywood’. David Fincher’s marvellous Mank, in part about the creation of Citizen Kane,is no exception and, to an extent, that most cliched of phrases rings true. But Mank is hardly a mere paean to a Hollywood era gone by, taking a page out of Kane’s book to tell a story that might have big things to say about power and infamy in America, but is most concerned with digging out the soul of an unknowably melancholy man.
Through a knotty and non-linear timeline, Fincher, working off a script by his late father Jack, takes us through key moments in the life of Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the writer behind Kane. We see him bashing out the script for ‘the greatest film ever made’ at an isolated desert ranch in 1940, while flashing back through time to Mank’s stint as both sought-after writer in ‘30s Hollywood and court jester in the palatial houses of newspaper magnate, and Kane inspiration, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Fincher Sr was not a screenwriter by trade, working mostly as a journalist, though you’d never guess it. There are certainly some touches that show a researcher/historian’s eye – the Jewish-American Mank having a British typist and German nurse assist him as he writes Kane in the early days of World War 2 – but Mank’s is a truly sparkling screenplay, a perfect balance of tradition and modernity. Characters snore and vomit and swear in a way they never would have been allowed to on screen in Kane’s day, but they’ve all also got the impossibly sharp off-the-cuff wit that made those Golden Age scripts so delightful – Mank is a far funnier film that you might expect from Fincher.
Both Finchers clearly hold this near-mythical version of Los Angeles in high regard, but the beauty is always offset by something more honest, an acrid stench here, a dash of bored sleaze there. It makes for a world that often feels in conflict with itself, trying to attain perfection without actually dealing with its own toxicity. For the first 20 or so minutes, this can make Mank feel rather distant, but the atmosphere eventually envelops you entirely, until you’re lost deep in the drunken haze of glamorous parties and seedy writers’ rooms.
Key to this immersion is the arrival of Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies, the likely inspiration for Kane’s sad and self-aware opera singer Susan Alexander. Of course, Mank is Gary Oldman’s show, and he’s fabulous, nearly as good here as he was as Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and possibly the first David Fincher lead to look like he’s actively having fun. Yet, you almost take Oldman’s brilliance for granted, and it’s Seyfried career-best performance that opens up the heart of both Mank the man and Mank the movie. It’s possessed of such intelligence and insight and radiant warmth that Davies feels utterly real and current, even with the impeccable transatlantic accent that places her squarely in the ‘30s. Through the gorgeous black and white cinematography, Seyfried glows gold.
This camerawork pays homage to Kane frequently, especially in the few scenes where Orson Welles shows up, played uncannily well by Tom Burke, but to call Mank ‘a film about Citizen Kane’ would be rather reductive. It’s a film about creativity and cleverness, and how those things only get you so far in a world that values power and at least a façade of happiness. In fact, the most interesting take Mank has on the idea of creative credit and ownership isn’t even in the conflict between Mank and Welles, but in the respect paid to the people around Mank who have to put in the hard, dull graft to enable his ‘genius’. Typist Rita (Lily Collins) and long-suffering editor John Houseman (Sam Troughton) get particular attention, keeping Mank sober enough to think, and then taking care of all the admin that goes into a script.
Oldman isn’t afraid to go very big in Mank’s drunker scenes, and the results are almost theatrical, but both the writing and Oldman’s performance are sharp enough to avoid pantomime, seeing Mank’s drinking as both vital fuel for his all-important wit and something to be consistently feared. Booze flows increasingly freely as the film goes on and Mank grows more and more disillusioned with the media empire he’s helped to build through his scripts. In one truly sublime touch, Mank watches an anti-socialist propaganda film he flippantly helped conceive and is so disgusted that he can’t even think up a new quip, the only time he’s rendered effectively speechless. Jack Fincher’s script is the most careful and considered of the year, packed to the brim with all the little details that elevate good writing to great.
But there are simpler pleasures at play here, too. Fincher’s perfectionist eye melds with beautiful camerawork, production design, and sound to craft a mesmerising world. There’s a lot of fun to be had as Mank pinballs between all the big players of his day, from Hearst to Welles to a scene-stealing Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), while his brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey, excellent) waits in the sidelines to become a Hollywood legend. The whole film is an embarrassment of riches, not to mention one that will richly reward multiple viewings.
Ultimately, though, Mank is about Mank, and what goes on inside the swirling head of an ingenious alcoholic who is somehow simultaneously of his time, past his time, and someone who can clearly envision the future. His is company you’ll be privileged to keep, grounded by a titanic central performance more than matched by equally majestic support. As Mank himself says; ‘you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one’. The impression that Mank leaves is indelible.