1941’s Citizen Kane is considered among many critics and cinephiles to be the greatest film ever made, even 70 years after its release. The story behind Kane’s creation has proven to be just as compelling. One of the key architects of the film classic is the lead character in David Fincher’s new film, Mank. Herman Mankiewicz was a charismatic, brilliant screenwriter who became a favorite among the Hollywood elite due to his entertaining wit. He was also a self-destructive alcoholic who proved himself unemployable until a young, maverick genius named Orson Welles decided to collaborate with the veteran writer on his debut film.
Mank is not a definitive film about the making of Kane, nor does it try to be. Welles, as a character, makes a minimal amount of appearances in fact. What Fincher has done is created a film that envelops the viewer into the social and political climate of Hollywood’s Golden Age like I have rarely seen in recent years. We are given backstage access to the movers and shakers of a bygone era, warts and all. This exposure is the prelude to the creation of Citizen Kane and the powerful men and intriguing women that inspired the Oscar winning screenplay.
Gary Oldman delivers a stunning performance as Mank. It’s so good that it seems effortless, as if he’s making up dialogue as he goes. Yet, he’s been provided with an amazing script penned by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher. Oldman’s Mank is the embodiment of the court jester who’s constantly in trouble for revealing the emperor has no clothes. Despite the outward wit and cynicism, there is great pathos brewing underneath. I’m sure we will see plenty of recognition this awards season.
The cast is filled with many veteran character actors embodying real life figures that, in time, have almost become myth. The two standouts for this reviewer are Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst and Arliss Howard as Louis B Mayer. It’s no secret that Citizen Kane was based on the life of Hearst and all the trappings included. Dance provides a towering presence that requires little dialogue, painting a portrait of a newspaper tycoon who began life fighting for the little man while working against their interests in later years. Howard’s portrait as Mayer comes as close to what I’ve read over the years about the legendary head of MGM studios. He’s shown to be a moralistic pitbull who reigns over his studio with an iron fist.
The jewel of the film is Amanda Seyfried’s performance as actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress and one of Mank’s true friends. She brings a warmth and intelligence to a character that could have been one dimensional and caricatured. Yet, Seyfried brings a star quality that could have fit right at home with the silver screen goddesses of the 30s. There’s an optimistic innocence and a world-weary know-how that endeared her greatly to me. She will be a strong contender for supporting actress in 2021.
Mank was shot in gorgeous black and white and recorded in mono soundtrack, which I hope won’t deter casual modern viewers from the film. I can only imagine what this would look and sound like on the big screen. Fincher’s keen eye for detail and visual beauty is stamped on every frame. Viewers familiar with Citizen Kane will even notice shots that are reminiscent of Welles’ work.
My only concern regarding the film is that it jumps right into the world of 1930s Hollywood. Casual Netflix viewers who might be unfamiliar with names such as Irving Thalberg, Ben Hecht and David O. Selznick might find the film a bit jarring in the beginning. The film is also told in a non-linear style, much like Kane. Fincher never allows the viewer to get lost though. Once you’ve entered the world he’s created, it’s likely to stay with you. The film also dives into the realm of Depression-era California politics which are eerily similar to what we’ve been experiencing over the last few years.
Overall, I recommend Mank very highly with few reservations. It’s a film that gives long overdue credit to an unsung architect of a legendary film. It also pays tribute to both the truth and myth of the Hollywood Dream Factory and the people who fought to make their voices heard through their art. It’s rare that a film works as both a love letter and cautionary tale, but it does just that and does it beautifully.