'Mank' Is a Fascinating Old-Hollywood Throwback From David Fincher
The movie is now streaming on Netfix.
Some viewers might write off Mank, the latest David Fincher movie, now streaming on Netflix following a short theatrical run, as being firmly stuck in the past. It's an old Hollywood story with an old pedigree: The ever innovative Fincher is working from a script written years ago by his late father, Jack. It looks gorgeous, but also looks like a pastiche of a film from the 1930s, complete with fade outs and cigarette burns. Even the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sounds like a throwback.
But to get frustrated at Mank for all its nostalgia would also miss the point of what Fincher is doing with this story, which on its surface is a quasi-biopic of Herman Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), the screenwriter behind the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane. Fincher's latest is ultimately a movie about mythmaking and the miniscule lines that exist between art and propaganda. Yes, Kane looms in the background, the ultimate example of Hollywood's ability to take reality and turn it into the stuff of legend to be misread by generations to come. Still, those looking for backstage drama, maybe something more akin to the plot of All About Eve, the classic drama written and directed by Herman's brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, will be disappointed.
The elder Fincher's script is more interested in the circumstances that inspired Mankiewicz to write a thinly veiled bildungsroman about William Randolph Hearst (portrayed with menace by Charles Dance) than the battle over credit between Mank and Welles that has been the subject of much hand-wringing over the years. It's a fascinatingly political movie about a man's seduction and disillusionment, simultaneously a tour of the Golden Age studio system, a hypnotic look at the quixotic empire that Hearst built, and a secret polemic against the capitalistic instincts of titans, who use artists like pawns in their greedy games.
Not unlike Kane, Mank's narrative is told through a series of flashbacks while its protagonist lies prostrate. Mank, however, is not dead. Rather he's laid up with a broken leg due to an auto accident. In this state of incapacitation he has 60 days to finish the screenplay for what would become Citizen Kane, aided by a nurse (Monika Gossmann) and a secretary (Lily Collins). Keeping Mank bedridden is a strategy by Welles (Tom Burke) and his partner John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to get a script done and keep the screenwriter sober. Doing the latter is the biggest challenge.
As Mank entertains eager queries from the buttoned-up Brit played by Collins, the Finchers lay their structure bare, taking the viewers back to the early 1930s when Mank was embedded as a writer in the studio system along with fellow transplants from New York like George Kaufman (Adam Shapiro) and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms). His latest protegé Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) invites Mank on a weekend trip to visit his aunt, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst's girlfriend. Mank, with his wit and lively drunken antics, is a hit at San Simeon, Hearst's lavish estate—his Xanadu, in Kane parlance.
In some ways, there's an impressionistic, episodic nature to what follows. It can seem at times like Mank is meandering, but there's a purposefulness to this. It's fitting that a movie about an inveterate alcoholic has the effect of wandering in on various cocktail conversations and hazy recollections that eventually swirl into a narrative. Mank, gregarious and mostly drunk, occasionally makes himself the center of attention, but is often observing the richer, more powerful people around him from the sidelines. It's from this position he watches as studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) launch a campaign using falsified newsreels to quash the gubernatorial campaign of The Jungle author Upton Sinclair, who is running against Republican Frank Merriam on a socialist platform aiming to get people back to work in the midst of the Depression. Hearst, of course, remains largely mum but acts as a sly ringmaster, which makes Dance's performance downright chilling as he watches with glee in his eyes from his gilded seat.
Complicating Mank's growing disgust with the partisan games around him is his friendship with Marion, played by Seyfried with oodles of Brooklynese charm. Seyfried, too frequently underutilized these days, manages to capture the duality of Marion's existence: She's aware of the frivolity of her existence under Hearst's thumb, but she's unwilling to give up those luxuries. The scenes between her and Oldman are almost heartwarming. They both convey their characters' affection for one another so effusively.
Mank is a movie about an alcoholic, but it's not exactly a movie about alcoholism. Oldman often makes drinking look, well, rather fun. His Mank is a straight shooter, always ready with a quip, and it's frankly a joy to spend time in his company. Both actor and director clearly love their hero, and it's easy to become as captivated with him as they are. He's nearly always blitzed, but also clear-eyed; not a crusader, just a writer who knows the power of his pen and decides to use it for something artistically masterful and socially pointed.
The stylistic flourishes that Fincher wields—that sumptuous black and white, for instance—are a way of convincing you the period was as romantic as the movies would have you believe. You're lulled by the vintage cadence of the dialogue, before you realize that this is no surface-level ode to yesteryear. It's a heady reminder that tycoons and their allies will always be interested in using the tools at their disposal to stay in power, and writers will do their damndest to stick it to them.
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