What is there left to say about David Fincher that hasn’t already been said? The man is a master of his craft. We expect greatness from him, and he delivers it. That has not changed with Mank, his latest meticulous work. Mank follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the prolific witty and boozy screenwriter as he writes the screenplay for Citizen Kane while reflecting on his past that inspired the work. What sounds like a tame “who gives a shit” story about the making of Citizen Kane is actually a scathing indictment on the studio system in the 30s and the danger of them steering public opinion.
For what it’s worth, Orson Welles is in only about 8 minutes of screentime.
Gary Oldman is as charming as ever as the alcoholic screenwriter. He’s always got a quip ready no matter the circumstance, and Oldman chews through the grandiose dialogue expertly, making the most outlandish of statements sound off the cuff. You never question it, he simply is Mank. Oldman has never not committed to a role, and that hasn’t changed here. Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies is the heart and soul of the film, the chemistry between herself and Oldman is immensely warm and melancholy. Tuppence Middleton does a lot with a little as Herman’s endlessly supportive wife Sara. Tom Burke is an inspired choice of stunt casting as Orson Welles. Charles Dance, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey and more round out an excellent cast.
Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt graduates from television (Mindhunter) and makes a terrific feature debut with his command of the black and white image. No shot or angle feels tedious or wasted, Fincher’s control over the film is airtight. Combined with the monaural sound mix and a jazzy score by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that is unlike anything they’ve ever done – and the effect is transportative. This film looks and feels like it was made at the very same time as Citizen Kane and used the very same equipment. I could have watched another two hours of it just for the feeling.
Those hung up on how Fincher goes against the popular consensus by portraying Mank as writing the whole screenplay for Kane are simply not even watching the film before them. It is the prattling of idiots who have forgotten what it means to interact with art. I’ve long believed that you can take artistic license and ignore history if it’s in the service of making good art – and Mank succeeds in that. The ecstatic truth is always far more important than the accountant’s truth. If you’re hesitant to watch Mank because of Fincher’s story choices, then you are a coward who is addicted to the accountant’s truth. The making of Citizen Kane is simply a backdrop for an examination of the intersection of authorship, entertainment, and the control of political information. It’s about the period of time in which Hollywood became a political force, and one for greed, around the contentious election for California governor between the republican Frank Merriam and the socialist Upton Sinclair. Fincher lays out numerous examples and motifs of his fierce dissection. The studios did all they could to influence the outcome of the election between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair, as a Sinclair victory would impact their wealth and influence. They would be forced to pay people a living wage, so they throw all they can behind Merriam in anti-Sinclair ads that are fraudulent. Famous actress Maude Anderson does radio ads pretending to be a single mother voting against Sinclair in order to make it appear that Sinclair is the enemy of the working people. Mank watches an ad MGM has produced featuring hired actors in a “newsreel” as “working people” who support Merriam. He reviews it by damningly remarking “It’s enough to persuade me that a writer is more of a menace to an unsuspecting public than a party hack.” It’s revealed that no studio would produce Mank’s anti-Nazi screenplay he wrote in the thirties because Goebbels had placed a nationwide ban in Germany on any film with Mank’s credit. They can’t get political unless it’s for their own benefit. It’s the dawn of misinformation in the motion picture.
Fincher goes further with this in examining the root inspirations for Mank to write Citizen Kane in his past interactions with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) – the man whose life Mank and Welles unofficially based Citizen Kane on. He displays the damning impact of what happens when the most rich and powerful are the only ones making art. Marion Davies remarks that Hearst picked out a cabinet for FDR like he’s casting a picture. A gloriously staged sequence at one of Hearst’s dinner parties finds Mank drunkenly coming up with the plot of Citizen Kane. Interesting that in one scene Welles is accusing Mank of the very behaviors he’d become famous for – boozy, belligerent and hated – just as Hearst found himself battling Upton Sinclair, a man who’d previously praised him yet now found Hearst in opposition of his ideals he held in his youth – yet another example of how stunningly crafted the screenplay is by Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher. The writers guild was just in its infancy at this time, and Mank’s final act to join them and demand credit for his work is an act of brave rebellion against a studio system designed to strip him of authorship. It is his own way of reclaiming himself from a system that works only in service of those at the top.
Mank is immensely prescient in ways I hope I don’t have to explain to you. Nothing has fundamentally changed in our relationship with celebrity, politics and entertainment/art. It is Fincher at his most scathing and righteously furious. Netflix gets a pass for not screening it in theaters this time around, but I hope to one day watch it on the big screen when it’s safe to go to the movies again. And an aside: The ending credits being interrupted by a trailer for something far worse is a jarring practice Netflix needs to do away with. People must be allowed to sit with their feelings as the credits roll instead of trying to distract them with some D-grade shit. Fincher is quite simply one of the great filmmakers of his era, and Mank is without a doubt one of the best films this year.