Six years after 'Gone Girl', David Fincher returns with a ravishing and icy drama about 'Citizen Kane' screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz.
November 19, 2020
UPDATE, December 4, 2020: Mank is available to stream via Netflix.
In 2010's The Social Network, David Fincher surveyed the story of an outsider and upstart who would become a business magnate, wield significant influence and have an immense impact upon the world. The applauded and astute film tells the tale of Mark Zuckerberg and of Facebook's development — but it's also the perfect precursor to Fincher's latest movie, Mank. This time around, the filmmaker focuses on a man who once spun a similar narrative. A drama critic turned screenwriter, Herman J Mankiewicz scored the gig of his lifetime when he was hired to pen Orson Welles' first feature, and he drew upon someone from his own life to do so. Citizen Kane is famous for many things, but its central character of Charles Foster Kane is also famously partially based on US media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who Mankiewicz knew personally.
Accordingly, Mank sees Fincher step behind the scenes of an iconic movie that his own work has already paralleled — to ponder how fact influences fiction, how stories that blaze across screens silver and small respond to the world around them, and how one man's best-known achievement speaks volumes about both in a plethora of ways. Mank is a slice-of-life biopic about Mankiewicz's (Gary Oldman) time writing Citizen Kane's screenplay, as well as his career around it. It's catnip for the iconic feature's multitudes of fans, in fact. But it also peers at a bigger picture, because that's classic Fincher. The director chased killers in Seven, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mindhunter, painting meticulous portraits of obsession each time. He unpacked the myths we make of our own existence in Fight Club and Gone Girl, and interrogated the societal perceptions such self-told tales play with and prey upon along the way. Naturally, with him at the helm, Mank was never going to simply serve up a straightforward snapshot of a Hollywood figure. That isn't Fincher's style, and it wouldn't suit Mankiewicz's story, either.
When Mank introduces its eponymous scribe, it's 1940, and he's recovering from a car accident. In a cast and confined to bed due to a broken leg, he has been dispatched to a Mojave Desert ranch by Welles (Tom Burke, The Souvenir) and his colleague John Houseman (Sam Troughton, Chernobyl) — all so he can work his word-slinging mastery. As Mankiewicz toils, the movie wanders back to times, places and people that inspire his prose, especially from the decade prior. Dictating his text to British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he draws upon his friendships with Hearst (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones) and the news baron's starlet mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in particular. And yes, as anyone who has seen Citizen Kane will spot, Mank's nonlinear structure apes the script that Mankiewicz pens. Many of the latter film's glimmering black-and-white shots do as well, although you won't spot a sled called Rosebud here.
The authorship of Citizen Kane has long been a point of controversy, with Mankiewicz agreeing not to take any credit, as Mank shows. (When the screenplay won the film's only Oscar, however, it was awarded to both Mankiewicz and Welles.) Fincher's movie doesn't actually scrutinise the matter too deeply. It recognises that Mankiewicz was frequently asked to work uncredited — he's known to have polished the script for The Wizard of Oz, for example — and sides with the idea that Citizen Kane's screenplay was largely his creation. Of far more interest to the film is the role that Mankiewicz held not just for Welles, but also throughout his time in such an ambitious, ruthless, ethically dubious and uncaring industry. As such, it's impossible not to notice how, with Houseman trying to keep Mankiewicz's notorious love for a drink under control, the scribe feels trapped by his task for Welles. In flashbacks, the way that Mankiewicz is expected to ply his alcohol-addled wit to entertain Hearst and MGM studio chief Lous B Mayer (Arliss Howard, True Blood) is similarly inescapable. And so, Mank posits, it's little wonder that Citizen Kane became an epic takedown of the type of man whose success depends upon enlisting others to do their bidding.
In a script by Jack Fincher — father of David, who wrote the screenplay in the 90s before passing away in 2003 — Mank suggests other factors that made Mankiewicz the person he was, and that shaped Citizen Kane's script as well. Scenes of Mankiewicz and his co-workers spitting out whatever ideas came to mind while lapping up the Golden Age of Hollywood and its studio system show the writer at his most content. His response to the use of movie-making trickery to create a fake news campaign to sway a 1934 Californian election by Mayer and film producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, Doctor Who) show Mankiewicz at his most passionate about something other than booze and bon mots. Also evident: the abundant cynicism that helps him wade through Tinseltown's trappings, the melancholy shared with Davies, and his reliance upon his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton, Downton Abbey).
Combine all of the above, and a dense and detailed movie results. That's Fincher's wheelhouse, after all. Mank is also visually ravishing and textured, and tonally cutting and icy — which, along with weighty performances, are all Fincher hallmarks. But there's both depth and distance to Mank. Its shadowy monochrome images, as shot by Mindhunter alum Erik Messerschmidt, dance across the screen. The Jazz Age score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is just as delightful. Oldman's certain-to-be-Oscar-nominated portrayal demands attention, and Seyfried's luminous efforts prove the best kind of surprise. And yet this movie about a man observing and interrogating a particular world, made by someone doing exactly that, always feels like it should be more intimate and resonant. It peers in and pokes about, but it never wholly lures the audience in — and watching Oldman and Seyfried's rich scenes together, viewers will wish it did.