David Fincher’s Mank is a period-piece biopic loaded with style; not a combination you see very often. The story of how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, it was filmed in black-and-white and its score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) uses period-authentic instruments. It is an attack on the studios and the filmmaking process in general, using satire, wit and the anger of a protagonist who no longer cares what happens to him. Its production, structure and performances are all fantastic, making for an entertainment as alive as the classic that inspired it. This is a throwback to Old Hollywood that exists to take shots at Old Hollywood. It doesn’t really make a consistent point beyond “Mankiewicz deserves more credit for Kane than Orson Welles,” but that is mostly enough.
Mankiewicz made his name as a staff writer for MGM. In 1939, after being injured in a car accident, Mankiewicz was visited by Orson Welles. The wunderkind wanted to collaborate with him on a new project, for which Mankiewicz would receive no credit. Mank jumps from working on the screenplay to flashbacks of his time working for Louis B. Mayer and his personal experiences with businessman William Randolph Hearst (the real-life basis for Citizen Kane) and Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies.
There is a long-standing debate as to how much credit Orson Welles should get for writing Citizen Kane. According to the screenplay for Mank (credited to Fincher’s father, Jack, who passed away in 2003), the answer is none. Maybe that is true, maybe it isn’t. Whether I agree with it or not had no impact on my enjoyment of this story, which just uses it as a jumping off point to explore Mankiewicz’s inspiration/motivation, for writing Kane.
The present-day scenes, where he works on the screenplay with the aid of a young woman whose husband is fighting in WW2, are less interesting than the flashbacks showing him butting heads with Mayer, resenting Hearst and befriending Davies. Fincher’s film is about a man who had already been broken by a corrupt system when we meet him and is now focused on getting back at the people running it. Mank’s style is a tribute to the motion pictures of the time it depicts, yet its story is far from loving.
The score, sound design, production design and cinematography are all closely modeled on the golden age of Hollywood. However, they feel less like a replication and more like a commentary on the era. Though that commentary is somewhat scattered, it does nothing to diminish the achievement. This is a great looking movie in every aspect. It seems exactly like what would’ve happened if Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane with today’s technology, which is probably the point. Fincher uses a modern style to reproduce an old style as he goes after the people responsible for that style.
The sequence where young writer Charles Lederer arrives on a busy studio lot, with its fancy backdrops, only to watch as a group of jaded professionals mockingly pitch a rip-off of Frankenstein to David O. Selznick, is funny and biting. The scene where Mankiewicz meets Hearst, on-set while Hearst is monitoring production on a movie Davies is starring in, seems to encapsulate most of what Fincher wanted to say. Hearst, lording his power over everyone as he rides on a massive camera dolly, is infatuated with the wit of Mankiewicz, whose condescension goes unnoticed. Throughout Mank, powerful people scheme and manipulate. Mankiewicz decides even these men can’t damage him more than he’s damaged himself and fights back, first with amusement, then with anger.
Gary Oldman stars as Mankiewicz in a performance I feel confident will garner him his third Oscar nomination, and possibly his second win (he grabbed Best Actor in 2018 for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour). He dominates the screen as an alcoholic whose desperate desire to push back at the men running Hollywood leads to him caring even less about the bridges he burns. The supporting cast (including Amanda Seyfried as Davies, Charles Dance as Hearst and Lily Collins as his care-giver) is really good, but this is Oldman’s show. Fincher clearly trusted him to carry the movie. He absolutely does. Without Oldman’s ability to showcase Mankiewicz’s humanity, love and passion for writing alongside his pain and penchant for self-destruction, this is an intriguing experiment for Fincher. With Oldman, it is that and a lot more.
4¼ out of 5
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies
Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst
Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer
Tom Burke as Orson Welles
Lily Collins as Rita Alexander
Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg
Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer
Tuppence Middleton as Sara Mankiewicz
Tom Pelphrey as Joseph Mankiewicz
Sam Troughton as John Houseman
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jack Fincher