Mank tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz and his time spent writing Citizen Kane, widely claimed to be the best film ever made. Written by director David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, before he died of cancer in 2003, it deviates drastically from David Fincher’s previous works and takes on an entirely new and unique tone.
Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), nicknamed Mank, is the titular character of Fincher’s latest drama. The film begins as Mank is brought to North Verde Ranch to rest for 12 weeks after a car accident left him with a broken leg. There he is met by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who informs Mank that he has been given an opportunity by RKO Pictures to direct any film he wants, and he wants Mank to write the screenplay in just 90 days.
Like Fincher’s previous biopic, The Social Network, Mank deviates from actual events for dramatization purposes. In reality, Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane after his recovery, but Mank has him doing it whilst confined to his sickbed in a Misery-like scenario, re-living his memories of his time as a screenwriter for MGM as he uses these experiences for inspiration.
Joining Mank is stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a German nurse (Monika Gossmann), and the memories of his glory days in Hollywood. Much like Citizen Kane, a character profile is built of Mank throughout these flashbacks which piece together the puzzle of the story and Mank himself. We see his relationships with actress Marion Davis (Amanda Seyfried) and her media mogul boyfriend William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) who, Alexander points out, both greatly resemble characters from the Citizen Kane script.
Unlike The Social Network, Mank doesn’t dwell on the personal quarrels of Citizen Kane’s creation. It even skims over the fact that Welles almost took credit for the writing of Citizen Kane and that for years it was up in the air whether Mank actually wrote the script or not. Instead, the film focuses on why Mank wrote Citizen Kane and how he put together the story using his own personal experiences.
As Mank becomes a screenwriter and moves through Hollywood, he comes to a realization that Hollywood is not all glitz and glamor but is in fact extremely morally corrupt. We watch as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) tells the production company’s workers that they will have to take a pay cut, putting on a very emotional (and fake) speech about why this sacrifice is necessary. At the end of this speech, even those working minimum wage and struggling to make ends meet end up applauding him as he leaves the room.
On the outside, Fincher’s portrayal of 1940s Hollywood is almost like a love letter; everything appears classy and charming, though the writing is very critical of how morally corrupt Hollywood’s “golden age” was. Its stylish cinematography and beautiful costumes almost represent the rose-tinted glasses that many use to look back on that time of Hollywood – forgetting that it could be a brutal places and still is today.
Although Fincher has always embraced new film technology, being one of the directors praising the birth of the digital filming age in the documentary Side by Side, Mank looks and feels every bit like a 1940s film. From the transatlantic accents, to the monochrome cinematography, title cards and even digitally added film scratches – Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography plays really well with the film and further pushes the similarities between Mank and Citizen Kane.
Mank is so much different than Fincher’s usual thriller-esquire films that many Fincher fans may not find it enjoyable. This director has never been one for a soft movie, with his most comforting flick being about Mark Zuckerberg, because at least he was technically the villain of his own movie, so no one could torment him or win him over to corruption. But in Mank there are no murders, investigations, or psychological torment. Even when compared to The Social Network, it lacks the same intense build up of drama.
Mank is a film that is very much aimed at those who love Citizen Kane or have a high interest in 1940s Hollywood; otherwise it could come off as confusing or even dull for those who were looking for Fincher’s usual style. It has a magnificent cast to back it up with Oldman once again doing a tremendous job, despite the task of playing a character around 30 years younger than him. Amanda Seyfried was also noticeably brilliant as Marion Davis, partnered with Charles Dance who never fails to steal a scene. Composing duo, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, take on a genre of film much different to what they usually produce though fitted in perfectly with the 1940s theme.
All in all, Mank is a terrifically and intelligently written piece, but absolutely works best after watching Citizen Kane.