David Fincher may have found a permanent home at Netflix, which has to this point indulged his whims on projects that many studios may have passed on. None more so than his latest feature film, ‘Mank’, a beautifully crafted exploration of old Hollywood that not only attempts to recreate the experience of watching a film from the 1930s (yes, it’s black & white), but is also a highly personal endeavor, originating from the sole screenplay authored by Fincher’s own journalist father, Jack, who has been deceased since 2003. His forays into scripted series from ‘House of Cards’ to ‘Mindhunter’ have experienced different (and declining) degrees of audience interest. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the staunchest cinephiles, with some semblance of knowledge of the history of the 1930s studio system and the controversy surrounding Orson Welles’ masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’, will get much enjoyment out of this film. This being said, an engaged viewer interested in the subjects presented, or fans of Fincher who want to get a better understanding as to how this film fits neatly into his oeuvre, should do some homework to enhance the experience and appreciation of such an achievement as this.
It’s impossible to discuss ‘Mank’ without some film history context. The film focuses on Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter credited with co-writing Orson Welles’ lauded feature debut, 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’, a film regarded by many as the greatest of all time. Like the masterpiece on which it is commenting, ‘Mank’s narrative follows a ping-pong structure, framed by the irascible Gary Oldman playing the titular alcoholic as he dictates his conscripted screenplay service while convalescing after suffering injuries in a car accident. He’s attended by a German nurse (Monika Gossman) and an English typist (Lily Collins), who are tasked with not only his recovery, but also to keep him off the sauce and on deadline, as mandated by boss Welles (Tom Burke, doing a solid job conveying the auteur as more of an overlying aura hanging over everything).
While returning to this location in time throughout the movie, the real thematic meat emerges through various flashbacks throughout the 1930s. These scenes are prefaced by screenwriting setting cues (EXT. location (flashback year)), punctuated by cigarette burns (these and the nods to actual lines in ‘Citizen Kane’ are the most ham-fisted elements of the movie), and typically end with era-appropriate drawn-out shadow fade-outs. It’s here where Mank’s various relationships are introduced and fleshed out, including becoming part of William Randolph Hearst’s (an imposing Charles Dance as more of a pervasive presence) inner circle. The most poignant is the friendship Mank develops with Marion Davies, the silent film star from Brooklyn transitioning to talkies, played with wonderful aplomb by Amanda Seyfried in a one-of-a-kind performance deserving of all the accolades she is receiving. She is Hearst’s much younger companion, living full time at his Californian castle, the famous San Simeon, a location that presents the best set pieces for Fincher. She, like Mank, tends to speak her mind, a unifying factor for the pair, leading to the most electric head to head scenes in the film. That she is widely considered the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander, practical prisoner of Xanadu in ‘Citizen Kane’, the role is very surprising as presented here. In ‘Kane’ Susan clearly represents the main character’s simultaneous contempt for the common people and desire for their affection, a conclusion that ‘Mank’s main character comes to regarding Hearst, whether real or imagined.
Historical accuracy be damned, Fincher has put together another brilliant portrait of obsession. One of ‘Mank’s biggest surprises is its relative lack of darkness, its dialogue as snappy and quick-witted as many of the movies its emulating. The actors really seem to relish delivering their lines, every bit player here hinting at larger interesting stories themselves. The other big surprise is the overtly political slant Fincher gives the movie. The Hollywood Dream Factory of old wasn’t only interested in helping audiences escape their everyday woes, but also in holding influence over the country’s direction. So much of the movie nods towards the theme of power and corruption fueled by media, it’s impossible not to draw immediate parallels to today. Near 100 years may have passed, but it’s not hard to imagine a Tinseltown populated by both the idealistic and the opportunistic alike . . .
Directed By: David Fincher
Written By: Jack Fincher
Running Time: 131 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of four stars) – or – A-