Throughout the history of movies there’s been a fair share of movies about the ole’ days of making movies, about Old Hollywood. Many of which often can come off as self-congratulatory or just celebratory of the lavishness of the studio system, reveling in the caricatures of the cigar-chomping moguls who established its mythology. Mank chips away at those old stories from the inside. David Fincher’s alluring black-and-white take on Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (a flawlessly concise Gary Oldman) presents a fascinating meditation on an overlooked luminary of American cinema in its own distinctive language and rhythm. Though its forged in a meticulous 1930s backdrop that merges historical detail with the style and tone of the era, Mank isn’t some playful throwback. It isn’t a “love letter” to old age Hollywood — which its already been (falsely) called by some, in their own surface-level evaluations. Sure, a “love letter” sounds nice, but that trite concept is quite off-base here, as it misinterprets the film’s ambivalence about its milieu and the power of cinema to reshape reality. In actuality, Fincher has made a psychodrama of sorts that rewards the engaged cinephile audience in its crosshairs, delivering a complex and insightful look at American power structures and the potential creative spark to rankle their foundations.
Early on we see and hear a man critiquing a screenplay, stating “You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience. It’s a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans. The story is so scattered, I’m afraid one will need a road map.” The screenplay under critique will eventually become Citizen Kane, and as dim as those thoughts may sound eighty years later, they’re a reminder of the sheer audacity of that 1941 masterwork, not only in its dazzling technique but also in its defiance of the constraints of linear narrative. And Mank nonetheless devises its own tricky, time-shuffling structure. Written years ago by Jack Fincher (who died in 2003), his son, David, takes this movie into being its own unapologetically talky labyrinth. You won’t necessarily need a roadmap to follow the story as it jumps between a guest ranch in 1940 Victorville, California, where Mank experiences a physical recovery from a broken leg and a creative resurgence, and his bittersweet memories of ’30s Hollywood. A basic familiarity with Citizen Kane should suffice, and if that’s asking a lot of an idle Netflix surfer (this is a Netflix film), well, tough: In this dense, remorselessly niche cinephile swoon of a movie, you either sink or swim.
Which is not to suggest that Mank, oozing with visual and verbal elegance from every pore, is explicitly about the making of Citizen Kane. Nor does it attempt a standard cradle-to-grave deconstruction of its titular man; as Mank himself notes in a wryly self-reflexive touch, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” And on that level, Mank more than succeeds. Its aim is to illuminate the prickly, endearing, booze-swilling soul of Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he traversed the windy backways of the mass-entertainment medium. And like many of his contemporaries, Mank often viewed that medium with a barely concealed contempt, and the industry was happy to return it. There’s no question whose side Mank is on, especially since Oldman invests the man with such disheveled grace, soused wit and bittersweet feeling. But the film is much more than a defense of the high-functioning alcoholic, or a feature-length pity party for the high-minded writer, toiling away in a hopelessly vulgar commercial medium. The Finchers, for all their pessimism about Hollywood, still infuse a sheer density of detail that reflects a love for the art form even if with a cynical look is still present.
The Finchers bring the insight that Mank’s brilliant way with words, on and off the page, elevated him to a privileged if short-lived position within the good graces of William Randolph Hearst (a reptilian Charles Dance), the newspaper tycoon whose life would inspire that of Charles Foster Kane. That position affords Mank a dispiriting front-row view of the ruthless operations of power — especially political power — in a film industry that, for all its much-known liberalism of today, is shown to be in the grip of the Republican party of the ’30s. Like a lot of writers, Mank is innately anti-establishment, and his Hollywood-insider years are depicted as a time of steadily mounting disillusionment with his colleagues’ unswerving obedience to the GOP. With a dry remark or a delicious putdown always at the ready, Mank bristles at the machinations of Hearst’s high-powered Hollywood friends, mainly MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving G. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). Together, they miss no opportunity to unite their authority and exploit their workers, whether during the belt-tightening struggles of the Great Depression or the high-wire strategizing of the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign. In that dramatic episode, Mayer, Thalberg and Hearst set out to sink the Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), decrying his socialist views using fake newsreels.
This rich, fascinating and inevitably painful material does reverberate in our present, and Mank’s continual struggle thus reframes Citizen Kane as not just a personal work but an implicitly political one; an unsuspecting form of protest art that jabs at Hearst the powerful puppermaster and at Hollywood’s cold, capitalist heart of darkness. But the words “Citizen Kane” are never once uttered on-screen — it’s referred to by Mank’s working title, American — and the film itself is evoked mainly through visual, atmospheric associations. There are respectful salutes in the gorgeous delicacies of Donald Graham Burt’s production design and Erik Messerschmidt’s chiaroscuro cinematography, which mimics the look of old-school celluloid with faux reel-change marks. We never glimpse the Xanadu sets or Welles’ Mercury Theater players, but we do see Mank walking the grounds of Hearst’s estate, with its towering Gothic exteriors and monkey-crawling private zoo.
Strolling beside him in that latter sequence is the actress Marion Davies (a superb Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s longtime love, whose enduring friendship with Mank lends the film some of its sweetest moments. Mank’s general companionability with younger women — his “platonic affairs,” as his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), calls them — also emerges in his rapports with his nurse, Freda (Monika Gossmann), and especially his sharp-witted secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). The tragic figure of Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander, will be loosely inspired by Marion and partially named after Rita, and thus becomes a vivid argument that some of the most powerful fiction is rooted in lived experience. That logic has given us some pretty reductive cause-and-effect artist biopics in the past, but here it serves to deepen a complex inquiry into Citizen Kane and its own bitterly contested authorship. The critical arguments that Pauline Kael ignited with Raising Kane, her passionate book-length argument that Mankiewicz was the originator of the film’s Oscar-winning screenplay (for which he and Welles share credit), can hardly be avoided. But Mank, an imaginative weave of scholarship and speculation that’s packed with an intellectual vigor, tiptoes deftly through the minefield of picking a side, celebrating its hero’s work without succumbing to waving off Welles. The astounding accomplishment of the twenty-four-year-old genius who took Hollywood by storm is left to speak more than capably for itself.
This choice, which mostly relegates Welles (a mixed-bag Tom Burke) to a jovial yet commanding presence at the other end of a telephone, comes at the expense of some deeper understanding of the writers’ working relationship. But then again, the title isn’t “Mank & Welles.” And its true subject is not just Mank, but the industry that he so loved and loathed. It stretched from Hearst’s large digs, where A-list luminaries swap quips by candlelight, to the writers’ room where Mank matches wits and gambles compulsively with other ace wordsmiths like George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro) and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms). The chatter is thick and wickedly amusing; the swarming backlots and snazzy parties are a people watcher’s delight. But beneath all that bubbly surface, the rules of the game are ruthless and unforgiving. Mank’s younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), warns him not to bite the hand that feeds him, briefly foreshadowing the very different Hollywood ascendancy that awaits him. A low-level film technician (Jamie McShane) is ruthlessly exploited and ultimately discarded. Mank himself pays a steep price for his perceived disloyalty, retreating into an extended exile that becomes the staging ground for a history-making comeback.
Though it carries some extraneous subplots, that makes Mank very much a story about class divides and clashing egos, outsiders and insiders, striving and ambition, creation and authorship, an artist in the throes of a creative and a moral crisis, and the thrill and loneliness of being the smartest guy in the room. It would make a particularly fascinating Mank-and-Mark double feature with Fincher’s The Social Network, which not coincidentally was greeted as the Citizen Kane of tech-whiz biopics. But while Mank shares some key Fincher collaborators (among them, editor Kirk Baxter and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who all do incredible work), it doesn’t have the same moment-to-moment verve as some of his other work. With Mank, it’s more about off-kilter rhythms, which feel both immersive and agitated, as if Fincher were trying to both hypnotize you and jolt you awake from the Old Hollywood he’s re-created. And it’s an interesting feeling: Mank demands your surrender, but also your heightened attention. It’s a pleasurably discombobulating experience, sometimes playing like a biting comedy of manners and sometimes flirting with being an expressionist nightmare. As a “love letter to the movies,” Mank is as coded, cryptic, and vindictive as any of the Zodiac’s letters; as a rich, layered character study on a vast scale, Mank is one of Fincher’s most audacious filmmaking experiments that sees a man running against a system of media titans remaking the world in their image. “Love letters,” as transporting and romanticized as they can be, are withered away in Mank, into one last bitter laugh and smile. Kane died peering through a snow globe darkly; Mank succumbed to the bottle, but not until after he drank deep and churned his life’s passion into art. A film of peculiar, fascinating rhythms and a tantalizing puzzle-like focus, David Fincher, with Mank, finds provocative contemplations on the nexus between art, society and legacy. It’s a cynical delight to luxuriate in.
Mank will be available to stream on Netflix on December 4