A cardinal sin too many biopics indulge in is checking off the beat-by-beat life excerpts, ignoring a specified vision for depicting their real-life protagonists in favor of broad strokes. Mank, directed by David Fincher and based on a screenplay written by his late father Jack, is no such kind of biopic, thankfully. Inspired by Pauline Kael's spicy (and since widely discredited) New Yorker tome "Raising Kane," which argued Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for the Citizen Kane script, not Orson Welles, the film is as much about Hollywood's immersion in politics as it is about a writer struggling to finish what would become known as his masterpiece.
"You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours, you can only hope to leave the impression of one," pronounces Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) – explaining his circuitous, complex approach to writing Kane, but also, implicitly, Fincher's approach to making Mank.
Homages to Kane abound. The story unfolds non-linearly: In 1940, as a bed-ridden Mank settles in to write the script from a rented ranch house, and in flashbacks to various points in his earlier career working within the Hollywood studio system. (In a nice writerly touch, screenplay slug lines like "Ext. Paramount Studios– Day – 1930 (Flashback)," mark time jumps, useful to the viewer following along.) It's also gorgeously rendered in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and colorist Eric Weidt while deploying visual techniques (such as deep focus) most heavily associated with Kane.
As a movie about a movie – and one that has been propped up as the greatest of all time and included on every Film History 101 syllabus, no less – it could easily fall into the stale trap of navel-gazing and doe-eyed optimism about the magic and power of The Cinema™. On the former, it does stumble a bit, as I can imagine most viewers who aren't cinephiles may have a hard time following the action of the first 45 minutes or so. (Many long-forgotten Hollywood stars and filmmakers of the 1930s are introduced or name-checked in scene after scene.)
But Fincher, whose creative eye tends to be drawn to the dark and macabre, manages to avoid putting Hollywood on too high of a pedestal, even as he clearly demonstrates his affection for it through his own painstaking techniques. While Mank's prickly relationship with M-G-M executives Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), told in flashbacks, has shades of the familiar art-vs.-commerce banter – "If you want a message, call Western Union," Mayer grunts in one scene, evincing his entire approach to filmmaking – Fincher isn't so interested in telling a story in which the "art" triumphs. Instead, amidst the clever aesthetic details, there's sharp attention to deglamorization.
Much of the plot concerns Mayer and Thalberg's open support for the incumbent California governor Frank Merriam's re-election campaign against journalist Upton Sinclair, alongside media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Hearst, of course, is considered the thinly veiled inspiration for the power-hungry Charles Foster Kane, and Mank's attendance at Hearst's lavish dinner party salons, and their eventual falling out, serve as the creative spark he needs to write.
As Mank, Oldman is a crochety but witty alcoholic, who is generally respected but labeled by many to be difficult; the real-life Mankiewicz was notoriously disdainful toward the art of moviemaking, in part because he believed its inherently collaborative nature diluted the input of everyone involved. This type of character could lend itself quite well to scenery chewing of the Darkest Hour variety, but mercifully, Oldman is a touch more subtle here, playing disaffected handily. His best scenes are with Amanda Seyfried as the actress Marion Davies – Seyfried is outstanding here, infusing Hearst's longtime mistress with pluck and self-awareness that allows her to carry on thoughtful conversations with Mank, the only person who seems to take her seriously.
While there is much to admire about this movie, I find it easier to appreciate than to love. Many of the scenes at the ranch encounter the problem that often arises when trying to depict the writing process – how to render what is so often an internal exercise in visual form? Unfortunately, they can't help feeling inert at times, functioning as lay-up for the meat of the narrative arc told in flashbacks. And Mank still can't quite escape some trappings of the genre, like the exasperated but understanding wife of the tortured genius (Sara Mankiewicz, the thankless role played by Tuppence Middleton) or the frequent extolling of the tortured genius's genius (some version of Kane being the "best thing" Mank has ever written is repeated several times).
Still, it's a beautiful and bold exercise that amounts to more than what it might have been in lesser hands than Fincher's. And if you care at all about movie history and the intersection of politics, or you just want to watch a filmmaker at the top of his craft, Mank is a must-see.