In 1941, a 24 year-old prodigy released his first film, "Citizen Kane," regarded as cinema's best by many. But believing in the making of his own legend, Orson Welles (Tom Burke, "The Souvenir"), tried to retain complete authorship, reluctantly ceding a cowriting credit. The alcoholic screenwriter whose personal relationships fueled the screenplay would win an Oscar, but never work again. He was known to his friends as "Mank."
Laura's Review: A-
Working with a screenplay written by his father Jack which was initially supposed to be made back in 1990 when studios panicked at the words ‘black and white,’ director David Fincher (“The Social Network,” Gone Girl”), a notorious perfectionist known for his grueling number of takes, has meticulously reconstructed Hollywood of the 1930’s and 40’s to deconstruct the rot behind a studio system feeding lies to the American public. Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) was one of several wits and wags on the MGM lot (one humorous scene in the writers’ room features a volley of memorable quotes and a typist wearing pasties), a prolific screenwriter with an analytical talent for observation. His inclusion in the San Simeon crowd of the 1930’s, until William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) tired of his excessive drinking, gave him much of what he needed to create Kane, but it was his disillusionment watching Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) tap Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) to smear writer Upton Sinclair with lying propaganda reels when the Socialist-Democrat ran for governor that gave his screenplay its arc.
The film opens with Mank, recovering from a car accident that has left him immobilized in a cast, being tasked by producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) with 90 days and a wooden case of Seconal laced booze as motivation (in a nice touch, Fincher will recreate a scene of Kane dropping a snowglobe with Mank dropping one of these bottles). He’s given a typist, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and a nurse. As Mank settles in for dictation, Fincher flashes back. We find the film’s heart in Mank’s relationship with Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the Brooklyn actress her sugar daddy tried to turn into a star who Mank recognizes as a fellow rebel in calling it like one sees it (notably first as regards Adolf Hitler).
Two things which are very surprising about “Mank” are how funny it is and how little Welles actually appears. Rather than being exclusively about the writing of “Citizen Kane,” “Mank” is an inebriated journey of the soul, a lurch through an industry selling falsehoods along with magic (the more things change…the parallels to today’s political landscape and media are unmistakable). Oldman is delightful skewering the powerful with truths as he moves among them, tossing off well known quips with natural ease. Seyfried’s never been better as his comrade-in-arms, her ‘Mank!’ greetings the embrace of a coconspirator amidst strangers. The two have a lovely third act scene discussing the ramifications of releasing “Citizen Kane” on their own friendship. Also outstanding in the huge ensemble is Arliss Howard as Mayer, followed in one long tracking shot through backlots as he spouts his ideology to the newly arrived Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey). As Mank’s long suffering wife who he comically refers to as ‘Poor Sara,’ Tuppence Middleton stakes her ground.
The production is flawless, Erik Messerschmidt, the cinematographer behind Fincher’s ‘Mindhunter’ series, capturing the action with shimmering digital black and white photography. Production design is painstaking, the score a jazzy delight incorporating the sounds of the typewriter like a good throwback should.
If the film has a fault it is in throwing such a dizzying array of characters at us very quickly, leaving even those in the know of Hollywood lore a little out of breath. If you only have a casual relationship to movies, you may find much of this baffling. But anyone aware of Pauline Kael’s infamous ‘Raising Kane’ essay or the manipulative ways of Louis B. Mayer will find much to revel in here.
"Mank" is in select theaters now and will premiere on Netflix on 12/4/2020.