A lot of movies about old Hollywood celebrate the opulence of the studio system or revel in the caricatures of the cigar-chomping moguls who established its lore. “Mank” chips away at those old chestnuts from the inside. David Fincher’s alluring black-and-white take on “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (an acerbic and funny Gary Oldman) presents a fascinating meditation on an under-appreciated luminary of American cinema in its own antiquated language.
Though forged in a meticulous 1930s backdrop that merges historical detail with the style and tone of that era, “Mank” is hardly a playful throwback. Fincher has made a cerebral psychodrama that rewards the engaged cinephile audience in its crosshairs, but even when cold to the touch, the movie delivers a complex and insightful look at American power structures and the potential for a creative spark to rankle their foundations.
The premise of “Mank” invites certain assumptions about its argument, so it’s worth dispelling those up top: Fincher, working from a dense and inquisitive script that his late father Jack wrote decades ago, has not adapted Pauline Kael’s essay “Raising Kane,” the New Yorker critic’s controversial 1971 essay that credited Mankiewicz as the true “Citizen Kane” author over director Orson Welles. It doesn’t provide an exacting peek behind the scenes of the “Kane” production or really much insight at all into the way the two men collaborated on the proverbial Greatest Movie of All Time. Instead, Fincher places a remarkable, puzzle-like focus on what that legacy really means.
And for the titular hard-drinking raconteur at the center of “Mank,” his eventual Oscar-winning screenplay meant a lot of things. Like “Kane” itself, “Mank” unfolds across dueling timelines in a quest to unearth the elusive nature of a figure often maligned or misunderstood in the history books. The movie shifts between the bedridden man, holed up in a North Verde, California ranch with a clandestine stash of booze as he dictates his embellished take on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and the complex set of political and personal events that catalyzed his best work.
On a certain level, “Mank” positions “Kane” as a form of artistic revenge: Cast out of Hearst’s inner circle of powerful figures from the entertainment-media complex, and possibly also angry with a system that rewards their greed, the screenwriter turned Hearst into a capitalist cartoon alienated by his wealth and the world around him. The critique took a personal turn, with Mankiewicz integrating Hearst’s romance with the much younger starlet Marion Davies (a superb Amanda Seyfried) by envisioning her as the ultimate bored trophy wife.
“Mank” takes its time setting these pieces in place — there’s no phony “aha” moment where it all comes together — and only mentions the title of the movie he’s writing in its closing moments. That’s because the writer’s inspiration for “Kane” goes well beyond the figures he worked into it and rests within a more sophisticated set of frustrations that transcend the specificity of Welles’ final cut. Set against the backdrop of California’s messy 1934 gubernatorial election, Fincher’s movie finds the scribe growing uneasy with Hollywood’s then-conservatism, and eventually sickened by its role in toppling socialist Upton Sinclair’s candidacy. These details creep into the drama as it develops an immersive world.
When “Mank” begins, Mankiewicz has been tasked with conceiving of a screenplay for “dog-faced prodigy” Welles (Tom Burke), the 24-year-old Mercury Theatre hotshot all too eager to storm Hollywood. Burke’s Welles isn’t the strongest impersonation of the garrulous showman (that honor goes to Christian McKay in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles”), but that’s largely irrelevant since Welles mostly exists as a hypothetical figure throughout the movie — the animating force who allows a has-been one last shot at a lasting impression. After Mankiewicz suffers a broken leg in a car accident, Welles pops into the hospital like some sort of auteur jack-in-the-box (“Mank! It’s Orson Welles!”), injecting the weary and weathered figure with one last surge of purpose.
From there, the movie recounts the circumstances of the previous decade to explain how a garrulous ex-journalist fired many times over by the studios wound up a disgruntled mess. MGM head Louis B. Mayer (a magisterial Arliss Howard) tolerates Mankiewicz well enough at first, at least until his constant drunken troublemaking and politically-charged diatribes become a liability to the studio’s reliance on Hearst support. Fellow MGM leader Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) doesn’t fare much better, even as he attempts a more sensitive approach to Mankiewicz’s assaultive demeanor.
These events speed along at a dizzying pace, with Mankiewicz darting through studio offices and hovering on the edge of film productions, equal parts insider and interloper. While some of the characters he encounters come across as outsized cartoons, the movie delivers its most enticing dynamic in his unique bond with Davies, a carefree spirit whose connection to the writer veers from encouraging to passive-aggressive over the course of several potent showdowns. Seyfried’s shit-eating grin works wonders several times over to express her dwindling patience for the writer’s scheme, and the movie finds its best moments in their unlikely showdowns. “Don’t kick pops when he’s down,” she pleads, but it’s just shy of a threat.
Fincher works overtime to craft a rich, layered character study on a vast scale, resulting in his best movie since “The Social Network” and one of his most audacious filmmaking experiments since “Benjamin Button.” (By playing to Fincher’s unsentimental strengths, it’s a lot more successful than that one.) Jack’s script (allegedly spruced up by credited producer Eric Roth) unfolds in snippets of heated back-and-forths, wasting little time to explain itself for any passive viewers overwhelmed by the circumstances at hand. But even they will appreciate the level of craftsmanship on display, from Erik Messerschmidt’s lush cinematography to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ uncharacteristically jazzy score that sustains the action with restless verve.
With so much to absorb as Mankiewicz roams about his old stomping grounds, “Mank” has a tendency to feel more boxed-in and theatrical when it returns to its ranch setting: Aside from an amusing homage to the “Kane” snowglobe early on, these scenes are less cinematic than the flashbacks, driven mostly by Mankiewicz’s exchanges with a concerned nurse (an underutilized Lily Collins) and the various Hollywood power brokers who pay him a visit. However, the ranch does serve as Mankiewicz’s own Xanadu, and the parade of visitors provide him with a sophisticated breakdown of just how much the project represented a threat to the world that built him up. These include the writer’s supposed editor/handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and Mankiewicz’s brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), one of the few voices able to put his brother’s downfall in focus. “You made yourself court jester” of Hollywood, Joe says, and the flashbacks prove it.
From the delicate shadows to the breathtaking scope of its production design, “Mank” conjures a fully immersive world, and possibly the greatest reenactment of Hollywood’s Golden Age ever. Its insight into the studio’s role in developing anti-Sinclair propaganda isn’t too shabby either. “Mank” unites those ingredients as it finds the writer pressing for unionization and a more liberal Hollywood that wouldn’t emerge for decades. As a scrappy hero of progressive causes ahead of his time, his frantic behavior becomes infectious. It’s a blast to watch him trailing Mayer across the studio lot and growing increasingly disillusioned by what he sees, or (in the best extended sequence) chasing Davies’ car as it heads to the studio exit in a last-ditch effort for an ally in his political crusade. That he fails — or that the system fails him — provides a cogent argument for the forces that made “Citizen Kane” so potent.
Despite the artifice in every frame, “Mank” is grounded in the realism of its protagonist’s perspective, and Oldman bursts through every scene with such domineering energy he often looks as though he might burst onto the lens. The movie around him sometimes takes that performance even further, erupting into bursts of melodrama less effective than the overall subtle nature of Fincher’s approach. A big drunken dinner sequence that finds the sloven Mank pitching “Kane” to a pearl-clutching audience goes over the top and keeps going, though it makes a vibrant case for “Kane” as an unsuspecting form of protest art.
And while Welles’ final work doesn’t hover over “Mank” in every aspect, it casts a profound thematic shadow — the more you look, the more you find — and reassesses its value. For decades, “Kane” has been celebrated for advancing the language of film, which “Mank” embodies but doesn’t dwell on. Instead, “Mank” goes deep on the conviction that the confidence of American capitalism is a tenuous dream, one that Mank tackled with a bravado that bordered on martyrdom. His thesis wasn’t exactly foolproof: Hollywood turned liberal, and the Golden Age eventually collapsed, but rich white men continued to run a system at odds with the freewheeling individualism of the artistry at the mercy of the machine. However much credit Mankiewicz deserves for “Kane,” Fincher’s remarkable movie makes a compelling argument for appreciating the prescience behind its conception. His life had a rough ending, but the movie about it gives him one last bitter laugh.
“Mank” is available in limited theaters on Friday, November 13 and streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, December 2.
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