Master filmmaker David Fincher steps back behind the camera for his first feature film since 2014’s Gone Girl and brings to life the story behind the making of Citizen Kane in Mank. Part bio-pic, part time capsule, Mank is an extraordinarily powerful film that examines the Golden Age of Hollywood through one of the men who contributed towards it, and for audiences who long to be pulled back into powerfully, evocative narratives, it delivers in every possible way.
1930’s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane.
Regarded as a very personal film for Fincher, Mank adapts the screenplay written by his own father, Jack Fincher, and chronicles the making behind what many regard as the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. Transporting audiences back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, Mank is an exploration of the power of narrative and just what it can do to people, along with exploration of one man’s place within it in the form of the film’s protagonist Herman J. Mankiewicz who is portrayed on film in a magnificent turn by Academy Award winner Gary Oldman.
Mank offers up Fincher a grand canvas to tell Mankiewicz’s story, and the director takes audiences back to the studio system of the late 1930s and early 1940s and his production mirrors this in every fashion. Shot in beautiful black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Mank is gorgeous to look upon. Everything comes together in Mank. From its fantastic Art Deco buildings and the magnificence of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon residence to the stunningly evocative gowns and dresses of it’s leading lady in Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies. Fincher paints a beautiful portrait of the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the glamour to the sleaze, and the result is a picture that transports the audience back to another era and grounds them within the narrative that the director presents on screen.
Both the narrative and the look of the film are completely intertwined here in Mank, with Fincher using the production techniques of the era to keep audiences starring at the screen. From its scrolling crawl credits to the click of typewriters keystrokes to indicate time, location and scene-setting, all of it is in keeping with the era. Fincher’s unique mix of en-media-res framing takes audiences back and forth between Mank’s isolated residence in 1940’s Victorville, California where he toils away on the screenplay for Citizen Kane, along with Mank’s time spent in the studio system of the mid-1939s, and helps to tell the story of how Kane came to be. Fincher’s presentation of the narrative keeps this film exciting and the audience on the hook the whole way through.
Taking centre stage on the screen is Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, a completely complicated character of a man. Mankiewicz is the smartest guy in the room masquerading as the clownish court jester to Hollywood’s elite. A loudmouth and a drunk, Mankiewicz is a completely flawed individual who has stumbled into the position of the hack writer, even though he is a genius. At one minute loutish and offensive, and the other sincere, kind and thoughtful, Oldman’s Mankiewicz can see the bigger picture in front of him and his work on Citizen Kane is ultimately his desire to show-up these Hollywood elites for who they really are. Mankiewicz is essentially a man with a conscience in a town without one and this makes him an incredibly interesting character to view through the events of Mank.
Standing as Mank’s leading lady is Amanda Seyfried who takes on the real-life character of actress and mistress to William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies. Best described as a complex yet self-absorbed character, Marion is many things to many different people. Ravishingly beautiful and the centre of attention at all times, Seyfried’s Marion is no mere airhead, but a native Brooklyn girl who is a born survivor and who has used her looks and womanly attributes to elevate herself to the heights of Hollywood power. She’s a party girl who’s fond of liquor and who is uniquely brash and outspoken for her era. But beneath that character is a very lonely individual who finds in Mankiewicz the only person who can truly see her for who she actually is. Seyfried is exceptionally fine in the part and like Oldman draws her audience into her performance as this very unique and memorable person.
Providing key support to Mankiewicz in Mank is Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, Mank’s assistant and the character within the film’s narrative who humanises him the most. A no-nonsense British secretary, Collin’s Alexander at first comes off as rather to-the-point and appears to be non-too-pleased with having to babysit this drunken buffon. But as Mankiewicz begins to craft his story, she soon sees the genius of his work and the sincerity of this man who actually puts the interests of others ahead of himself. Collins is a great counter to Oldman in the same way Seyfried is and is able to tease out a different side of this character. She’s the supportive character we could all wish for in our corner and her hands-on approach is exactly what Mankiewicz needs when the going gets tough.
Standing in as the film’s chief antagonist is the great Charles Dance as the unmoveable William Randolph Hearst. As the richest man of his age, he commands huge respect and power from his grand San Simeon residence and holds sway over the whole of Hollywood and those who make up it’s elite. He’s the king to Mankiewicz’s jester and the two share an interesting relationship that is showcased through the picture. Dance has made a career portraying intense and stone-hearted characters and his work as Hearst ranks as one of his best performances to date. You find yourself having to do a double-take every time he appears on the screen and this menacing villain is sure to leave you off-put.
Mank’s thematic exploration of the power of the media, and how a story can be used to both entertain and manipulate is where the focus of Fincher’s narrative lies. While it is an exploration of the historical, this central theme of the manipulation of the media is entirely relevant to our current time and Fincher uses this to his advantage in order to bring his audience deeper into the story. Balancing this exploration of the power of the media is the parable of ‘the organ grinders monkey’ which is a reference to the relationship shared between Mankiewicz and Hearst. This exploration of power dynamics is incredibly interesting to watch in relation to the history of both Mankiewicz and Hearst, alongside the creation of Citizen Kane.
Mank is an absolute must-watch for those who appreciate the history, art and form of filmmaking and here we see Fincher at the top of his game. The subject matter is close to his heart and he gives audiences a film that is worthy of its subject matter and the legacy of its lead character.