THE STORY – 1930s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish “Citizen Kane.”
THE CAST – Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Grossman & Charles Dance
THE TEAM – David Fincher (Director) & Jack Fincher (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 131 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
As soon as you see the old-school black and white opening credits roll on David Fincher’s latest film “Mank,” you know that you’re in for a treat. It will be said a lot but it bears repeating, “this is a film for cinephiles.” A movie about the making of “Citizen Kane,” blending old and new techniques to pay homage to the past while forging a new path into the future, this is yet another technical achievement in the long career for Fincher. Is it the masterpiece that “Citizen Kane” is? Not really. How could it ever be? Orsen Welles’ directorial debut is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, which is a tall order for anyone to measure up to. Is it a very good film? Yes. Let’s call it a “Manksterpiece” and get into the reasons why.
It’s 1940 at the North Verde Ranch in California. Hollywood screenwriter, drunk and gambler Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is bedridden with a broken leg and is contractually obligated to deliver a screenplay to new hotshot filmmaker Orsen Welles (Tom Burke) in 60 days (he previously had 90). Faced with the burden of trying to “capture a man’s entire life in two hours,” we see via. flashbacks his interactions with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and his brother Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey). While his transcriber Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) jots down his every word (the first draft of the screenplay would go on to be 327 pages) and tries to keep his drinking at bay, Mankiewicz challenges the establishment of Hollywood with his daring screenplay set against the backdrop of a politically tumultuous time.
While “Mank” is attempting to do a lot with its story and serves as an acting showcase for its cast, this is David Fincher’s movie. His control over the camera, editing, sound and the overall feeling of his films has never been more on display than it is here as he deploys old cinematic techniques to turn what once felt old and make it new again (eat your heart out “The Artist”). Whether it’s the analog sound of the film, the shooting style, the fade to black editing transitions (there have to be at least 12 of them in the movie), the cigarette burn in the corner of the screen to signify a reel change (which was joked about in a previous Fincher film, “Fight Club”), or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s jazzy, somber and retro score that ditches their usual digital sound for something more traditional, “Mank” is a passionately crafted film from everyone involved. The black and white cinematography from “Mindhunter” DP Erik Messerschmidt (making his feature debut), is particularly jaw-dropping where nearly every frame could be hung up on your wall. I have absolutely no doubt that he will win the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Special mention to the costumes and production design as well, as they both work in tandem to put us directly back into 1930s Hollywood, perfectly capturing what it must’ve felt like to not only be on a film set back then but in the time period in general.
Which leads me to my biggest criticism of “Mank” and the one element I feel that is holding it back from being the “masterpiece” that I mentioned before “Citizen Kane” is considered. The screenplay was written by David Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. He has sole screenwriting credit despite rewrites by the likes of “A Star Is Born” screenwriter Eric Roth and input from David Fincher, which is a development that often happens in Hollywood and ironically happened with “Citizen Kane” as Orsen Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz also fought over screenwriting credit (both of them would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). The writing is thoroughly researched, highly intelligent and also incredibly cold and dry, even by David Fincher standards. Many of Fincher’s previous films have been slapped with this label before but it’s never been more true than it is here as “Mank” currently stands as his most inaccessible film to date for general audiences who don’t already have a knowledge of the Golden Age of Hollywood and “Citizen Kane.” In his attempts to honor the past and the legacy of his father, Fincher risked alienating his contemporary audience who would love nothing more than to see the director keep making serial killer films and another “Fight Club” someday and it is my belief that he has. The writing fails to ever establish an emotional connection to Herman J. Mankiewicz as we watch his character navigate through the social and political changing landscape of the era with change or serious growth. And if it is there, it’s unclear underneath the avalanche of dry dialogue that is more concerned about the California gubernatorial election of 1934 than it is with the making of “Citizen Kane.”
Gary Oldman is more than up to the challenge of playing the alcoholic screenwriter who fought against the Hearst empire. Mank is considered to always be the smartest guy in the room who everyone knows (they all call him “Mank”) and respects but we see that respect slowly start to fade as his ideals become more clear and the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” gets developed. A drunken monologue at a costume party held by Hearst finds Oldman in fine form as he rants about Don Quixote and flexes his acting muscles for our amusement. It’s a very good performance from a very good actor who has had a long career of many better and perhaps more memorable performances but his work should not be discounted. Amanda Seyfried is a standout though as Marion Davies. Even though she does not have a lot of screentime or the opportunities that are afforded to Oldman, she completely disappears into the role and makes us forget that we’re seeing Amanda Seyfried on screen. We are seeing Marion Davies, and such a feat should be celebrated. And while the supporting actors all make the most of their screen time, none of them are in the hunt for awards this Oscar season. One scene in particular though at Louis B. Mayer’s birthday (an energetic Arliss Howard) where nearly every cast member is gathered together to discuss a variety of topics including politics, movies, economics, Upton Sinclair & Adolf Hitler is a definite highlight and true showcase not just for the screenplay and editing but for how much depth this cast that Fincher has assembled brought to the material.
So, is “Mank” a masterpiece? No. Is it even the best David Fincher film? No. Is it the technical achievement of his career? Debatable. It’s certainly his most overtly auteurist work as he exhibits complete control over every single frame of his loving ode to Hollywood’s past. Jack Fincher’s screenplay has surprising ties to our times today but many general audience members will most likely struggle to get fully on board with the film’s calculated and dry approach to the culture of the time, rather than telling the defiant story of good vs. evil that many were hoping for. A commanding Charles Dance at one point explains to a drunk Mank the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, where you’re doing exactly what a powerful person wants you to do, but you have no real power yourself. So, it’s technically there but it’s hazy. However, if you’re a fan of this era of moviemaking, there will be plenty to rejoice and obsess over as David Fincher has respectfully and lovingly delivered his most singular cinematic achievement yet. A “Manksterpiece.”
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – David Fincher is at the height of his directing ability,as he delivers a passionately crafted film that feels like it was ripped right out of the 1930s. Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfred and the rest of the cast all deliver convincing performances that feel right in line with the time period.
THE BAD – The screenplay can be a bit too dry and cold, making this one of Fincher’s most inaccessible films yet, especially for non-cinephiles.