“Who was that?” asks MGM boss Louis B Meyer on a visit to media mogul William Randolph Hearst. “Just a writer” comes the reply. Yep, writers were pretty much ten a penny in 1930s Hollywood. But the writer in question was Herman J Mankiewicz, a former playwright and theatre critic who would write the screenplay for the movie that nowadays has permanent place on all those lists of the best films ever made. For many, it has a monopoly on the number one slot. Citizen Kane.
It won him an Oscar – the film’s solitary statuette – but the citation was for both him and its wunderkind director/star/producer Orson Welles. David Fincher’s much anticipated insider’s look at Golden Age Hollywood takes its lead from Citizen Kane itself, digging into the background of the man they called “Mank”, both as a writer and as a person, and how his character influenced his career pre and post Kane. For Fincher fans, it’s familiar, investigative territory but this time it’s more of an expose, with the machinations and corruption of the movie industry in the spotlight – and with Mank himself as the audience’s provocative guide.
In a story where the man himself is hardly ever off the screen, and often flat on his back either because of a broken leg or a deep drunken stupor, the shadows of Kane – and Welles himself – loom large. Not simply because it’s about the writer’s work in progress, but also because Fincher has adopted its visual style. He reproduces those shots that were so revolutionary in their day – the gloomy interiors, the echoing rooms dwarfing their occupants, exterior light slicing through interior darkness with an uncanny accuracy, all visuals that run throughout Welles’ film. The costumes, the cars and the locations all bring 30s and 40s Hollywood to life, even down to the Hollywoodland sign in the hills looking down on the ever-expanding studios. That it’s filmed in black and white almost goes without saying, simply because anything else would have been totally wrong, but the cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt is a joy to behold.
This is, however, no simple nostalgia fest. “Fake news” reverberates around a sub-plot about the manipulation of political commercials during the mid-term elections of 1934, and the power that goes hand in hand with media ownership still looks all-too-familiar over 80 years later. Like the film that inspires it, Mank has an extensive cast with just a few familiar faces. Casting Gary Oldman as the brilliantly articulate and literary Mankiewicz is nothing short of inspired and he gives a performance which shows up his Oscar winning Churchill for the piece of grandstanding it was. A man in love with words and the bottle, at odds with anything that sniffs of hypocrisy or dishonesty, he also has a compassionate side that he relies on others to reveal for him. It’s hard not to like him, to admire him and to despair at his penchant for self-destruction. Amanda Seyfried is almost as impressive as Marion Davies, actress girlfriend of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance at his most icy) and probably the real reason for the magnate’s antipathy towards the writer.
Technically Mank is a wow – or, to use the line on the Citizen Kane posters at the time, “It’s terrific!” But those technical accomplishments overpower any real empathy, because there’s a distance, an emotional detachment that makes it hard to fully engage with the film. Only Oldman manages to hold out against that power. Full of admiration at the visuals you may be, but you’ll never feel more than just a mere observer. If you love movies, and you love Citizen Kane in particular, you can’t fail to relish Mank. You may even love it. Whether it will have the broader appeal that usually goes with a Netflix title is debateable. But that’s probably not the name of the game. After all, Hollywood – and that includes the Academy – loves films about itself…….
Drama | Cert: 12A | Netflix | Selected cinemas, Netflix | 4 December 2020 | Dir. David Fincher | Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tuppence Middleton, Charles Dance.