David Fincher is probably one of Hollywood’s finest misanthropes. From Fight Club to The Social Network, his cinematic offerings are full of moody settings and contemptuous characters often sucked in and spat out by a world that revels in their suffering. Any attempts to chance their hell of a world for the better often end up dooming it.
So how to explain Mank? Fincher’s 11th joint is an anomaly in his filmography – not least because he’s the next big filmmaker to jump ship to Netflix in exchange for a complete artistic vision. Mank contains the restlessness I spoke of above, the seeming hopelessness of trying to make sense of the universe when it seems to be conspiring against your every move. It’s also, unexpectedly, an actual delight to watch. Fincher’s films are rarely ‘enjoyable’ in the conventional sense (something like Se7en is a movie that you have to plan your day around watching), but Mank breaks new ground by being the lightest, sweetest, and ultimately most hopeful thing Fincher’s ever done – amidst the usual darkness and sadness at the world we’ve created and seem obsessed to recreate.
That’s not exactly a high bar to clear. Hot off the heels of two seasons of the fantastic, dearly departed, but miserable Mindhunter, and following a wake of films showcasing the range of damage humanity can do to each other if we put our minds to it, we should be expecting a certain resigned weariness to Fincher’s worldview – especially in regard to the smoke-and-mirrors nature of the Old-Hollywood that the film sets itself in. But Mank’s pendulum swings just as often to the opposite. It showcases the power of art as a weapon for destruction and obfuscation, for sure… but also as means to a light at the end of the tunnel. An expression of pain and anger, yes, but also of soul, hope and longing. And sometimes, if the stars align and lightning strikes, it can articulate something so powerful and universal, that – if sometimes only in a darkened room with a projector and 24 frames-per-second – the possibility of a better world becomes clear.
Such is a film like Citizen Kane, the conception of which that Mank is (and really isn’t) about. Most people know it as Orson Welles storming out of the gate with a riveting, poignant debut epic, featuring a command over his craft beyond his years. It’s not exactly a hot take to say that it earns its place in cinematic history. But is the widely contested origin story of this film just as interesting? Fincher, along with his late father Jack, who wrote the script, emphatically argue yes.
Mank is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a screenwriter with a scathing wit and bestial alcoholism who coasts his way through the Golden Age of Hollywood by doctoring and punching up the various scripts that go through the sausage factory of the studio system. Played with boozy relish by Gary Oldman in a clear career highlight, the lovable, self-destructive ‘Mank’ is happy to forgo credit for a decent paycheck working for the dream factory. But his allegiance to this world is revaluated and recollected as he slaves away years later at a ranch (healing from a broken leg) on an assignment script for “the boy genius” himself, which provides the framing device for the movie, cutting between the early 40’s in the cabin where Mank, with the help of secretary Rita (a warm Lily Collins) writes and takes visitors, and the late 30’s where the bulk of the narrative takes place.
The 30’s portion of the film concerns itself with how Mank acquainted himself with Old Hollywood royalty such as young Irving Thalberg and a weaselly Louis B. Mayer, whilst also introducing his more pragmatic brother Joe to the studio (in a great extended sequence where Mayer takes both Manks on a tour through the lot before tearfully begging his workers to take a pay cut). But it’s when Mank falls into the orbit of young starlet Marion Davis (Amanda Seyfried) and her ‘Pops’ boyfriend, conservative newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance oozing confident, comfortable menace) – the two people that Welles’ film is ostensibly about – that his motivations for eventually writing Kane begin to crystallise.
But this crystallisation doesn’t happen for a minute or so. In fact, the opening half-hour, while entertaining is (to quote one of the characters) “a bit of a jumble. A hectic hodgepodge of talky episodes. A collection of fragments that jump around in space and time like – like a bag of Mexican jumping beans.” We get valuable introductions to the setting (beautifully, beautifully designed by Donald Graham Burt and shot by Mindhunter alum Erik Messerschmidt) and the characters, but it seems unfocused, or trying to do so many things that you don’t know what to focus on. That is, until Bill Nye the Science Guy jumps into the mix, of course.
Although Nye is onscreen from a distance for maybe a minute, it’s his character, Upton Sinclair, that Jack Fincher proposes is the Rosebud for Citizen Kane’s creation. A famed socialist writer, it’s his run for governor of California that galvanises the powers-that-be at Hollywood to – bankrolled by Hearst – set the metaphorical dogs on Sinclair with propaganda, smears and straight-up lies to keep everything rolling along the way they want. This hits home for Mank, who realises that he’s actually complicit in something nefarious – he realises that Hollywood is a place that ultimately wants to take people to a fantasy land and keep them there. And it’s here that Mank finds its footing and becomes titanically good. Beginning to externalise his disillusionment and bite the hand that feeds him by refusing to play along with Thalberg’s anti-Sinclair fund, or desperately chasing Marion’s car to try and get her to help, he begins to fall out of favour with everyone in sight – and that might be the point.
This is also whilst attempting to maintain his friendship with Marion, which forms the heart of the movie (a David Fincher film with heart) as they bond over what seems to be their shackles to the powerful and a wry knowledge that it doesn’t have to be like this. Amanda Seyfried does career-best work here, with the full wattage of her charm and earnestness on display… everyone more or less knows that Davies is the stand-in for Kane’s brutally untalented second wife Susan Alexander, and whilst one disappointing blind spot in Jack’s script is that he doesn’t really offer an explanation for Mank’s writing that doesn’t chalk up to collateral damage, Seyfried’s deeply empathetic performance rescues Davies from that legacy, and creates a woman full of smarts and kindness, whilst also providing some of the loss that comes with writing her life into Kane.
Things come to a head when Mank gets a front-row seat to how Mayer and Hearst systemically destroying Sinclair’s chances, and that – plus a glorious drunken rant for the fucking ages when he pitches a version of Kane at a Hearst dinner party – provides all the ammo he needs to take dead aim at the elites that actively fought against a wave of change that possibly could have rippled into something extraordinary. What it does ripple into, however, is Citizen Kane – and its heartening to see Mank realise that, in a lifetime of being happy to go unnoticed for his work, this is something that he is truly proud of, and wants to take credit for.
This is a story of a man who realises the true impact of his words and talent… and that doesn’t exactly sit right with dear Orson. To be honest, the scene that follows isn’t exactly necessary – and Orson himself doesn’t really need to be in the movie at all, but Tom Burke’s scarily uncanny, fleeting performance makes it more or less worth it. This isn’t a film about ‘who’ wrote Citizen Kane – the film doesn’t really care about that – it’s about ‘why’ – and it’s as powerful a case of using art for social change as any.
Mank is a film that lasciviously and sometimes lovingly recreates Old Hollywood, but discontent to lavish in nostalgia, it risks it all to take a sledgehammer to any notion of Hollywood being a bastion of liberal, progressive values from the beginning (it barely is now). Capitalism’s chokehold over art here is shown to be nothing but corrosive, and the film moves with a melancholy sadness that this much talent is going to waste on such repressive social engineering, as much as it revels in the triumph of Mank’s screenwriting achievement.
The fact that the battle results in a stalemate (not even that, really – the film’s an obvious success but politics in California get set back decades) is why this story about the making of a near-80 year-old movie is unexpectedly vital in a year where progressive politics never ceased to forcibly acquiesce to the centre-right, or further. I couldn’t help but see traces in this film of the way campaigns like that of Jeremy Corbyn’s or Bernie Sanders were partly derailed by a media frequently bankrolled by a Hearst-like figure in Rupert Murdoch, and championed by those in power – and many ‘liberal’ Hollywood celebrities secretly desperate to cling on to a wealth given to them by the very people whose lives will be negatively impacted by their failures to get elected.
Changes like this often offer themselves with outsiders like Sinclair – but also from within. Oldman’s Mank is the first Fincher protagonist to be a genuine hero, with a conscience and moral clarity that can’t be buried any longer – and it’s absolutely thrilling to see it emerge as he bleeds all his frustration and guilt onto the page. Sometimes the only outlet is art, and when it is used like this, the result can be something akin to a miracle of expression. As David Sims articulated so beautifully, it is “a great great movie about how writing in the Hollywood machine can feel like hurling pebbles at Goliath, and how thrilling and terrifying it is to think that one time they might actually knock him out.”
This review is long! There’s so much I haven’t said yet, like the across-the-board brilliant performances (Tom Pelphrey’s Joe and Collins’ Rita are particularly sweet, stabilising presences in Mank’s life and the film), and the magnificently retro music by the endlessly variable Trent Raznor and Atticus Ross, whose only competition for best score of the year might actually be themselves for their ethereal work on Soul. Or how – even though they committed to digital – the recreation of the look and feel of a 1940’s film is uncanny, with the mono audio, black-and-white cinematography and slightly heightened and theatrical performances working wonders. I saw Mank in a cinema, and if the opportunity is there and you feel safe, I can’t recommend any better way to experience it.
But as the film so beautifully articulates, all that craft is always ultimately in the service of story and meaning that creators, being humans, always put in. And whilst the exceptional design of the film has been praised by far more articulate people than me, it’s what it’s all there for that really moves me – as much as it repulses Mank. This is the first David Fincher film that’s truly moved me (not to vomit). It moves not with repulsion but with sadness, and that’s all the difference in the world. It also has a true love and affection for it’s characters, the traps they put themselves in, and how it actually wants them to escape. With his trademark precision and an outstanding, dense script from Jack Fincher, they’ve created a wonderful story about how art can be a force for terrible agents, and that people in Hollywood are capable of putting their worst beliefs into the movies.
But the mere existence of Mank proves the opposite.
‘Mank’ is in select cinemas and streaming on Netflix now