Netflix UK film review: Mank
James R | On 04, Dec 2020
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Gary Oldman, Tom Burke, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance
Watch Mank online in the UK: Netflix UK
“You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience,” John Houseman (Sam Troughton) tells Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), after reading his first draft of Citizen Kane. He could just as well be talking about Mank, David Fincher’s film following the screenwriter as he works on Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece. A black-and-white film about the production of a 1941 motion picture, indulging in the politics and gossip of Hollywood’s Golden Age? It’s hardly a mainstream proposition. But Fincher’s picture is well aware of that fact, and the end result is a cinephile’s dream, swooning and sumptuously composed.
We fist meet Mankiewicz as he’s recuperating from a car accident, which has left him strung up in bed on a remote desert ranch away from the buzzing backlots Los Angeles. He’s staying there under the instruction of Orson Welles, the young boy genius of the radio who is preparing his big debut movie and has been given carte blanche by RKO Pictures to do what he wants. That freedom is both a dream and a nightmare for Mankiewicz, a washed-up alcoholic who has spent years touching up other people’s scripts in the same way that he entertains dinner party guests – with a sprinkling of acerbic bon mots and witty (and pithy) observations.
What emerges from Mankiewicz’s pen is an epic drama about the rise and fall of a media tycoon, one that is famously inspired by the life of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. The printing baron makes an appearance here, of course, played with the towering gravitas and grave authority of a deliciously frosty Charles Dance. These scenes, naturally, take place in flashbacks, as the zingy script (by David’s late father, Jack Fincher) emulates Citizen Kane’s non-linear structure.
And so while we see Mankiewicz languish and strive to produce something genuinely meaningful, we also see him insinuate himself into Hearst’s inner circle in the 1930s. He first catches the magnate’s attention on the set of a movie being shot at his estate, where Mankiewicz crosses path with actor Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Over the years, though, Mankiewicz’s irreverent, drunken banter turns to irascible drunken rants, and he finds himself cast out by a studio system that functions as a business first and foremost.
Mank’s cynical, compelling character study finds its meat in that dawning realisation, as Mankiewicz comes to learn that he’s not the organ-grinder, or even the dancing monkey, in this circus – he’s just considered a cog in that grinding machine. Davies, played with heart and warmth by Seyfried, gets far better shrift than Susan, the terrible singer she purportedly inspired in Citizen Kane, and she emerges as a poignant counterpart to Mankiewicz’s bitter antihero. A former showgirl, she has already come to terms with her place in the industry. The sequences in which she and Mankiewicz shoot the breeze are some of the film’s most thoughtful and absorbing moments.
Keeping Mankiewicz in check throughout are Troughton’s trusty script editor, Houseman, who is looked upon with disdain by Mankiewicz, and Lily Collins’ abrupt and unflappable typist, Rita. Neither are given the depth they deserve, but it’s perhaps no surprise given that over them all looms the spectre of Orson, who is played with an eerie accuracy by Tom Burke. While Mank undoubtedly buys into the myth that Mankiewicz did the bulk of the work on Citizen Kane, Fincher’s film doesn’t rob Welles of his importance, with his ferocious drive and creative ambition driving the narrative forwards. What begins as a 90-day assignment is swiftly cut to 60, and the stakes only climb higher when the industry gets wind of what Welles and Mankiewicz are cooking up.
For Orson, an outsider, the battle is clear-cut, but for Mankiewicz, an insider who has enjoyed being at the big boys’ table, the position of alienated loner is all the more painful. Oldman plays the part with an understated brittle charm, at once charismatic and playful yet resentful and laconic – the ideal opposite to MGM’s Louise B Mayer (Arliss Howard), who strolls through corridors with a straight-faced scowl that’s entertaining but never endearing.
As these immovable forces collide, what begins as a niche, notably dated biopic gradually blossoms into something surprisingly timely. From a studio boss telling his employees that they’re all getting pay cuts, while claiming it’s a good thing, to a political smear campaign against a Republican governor candidate that paves the way for fake news, Mank winds up resonating with the current climate in a savagely pointed manner. It becomes a frantic snapshot of an industry trying to work out how to forge a way forwards in a rapidly changing world. Given priority over the specifics of Welles and Mankiewicz’s creative collaboration, that melting pot of pressures is what produces one of Hollywood’s most lasting works of cinema, complete with its own groundbreaking newsreel introduction.
DoP Eric Messerschmidt captures the period in gorgeous deep-focus monochrome, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack is a lavish, old-school affair that fuses orchestral emotions and Jazz Age energy with a dark, modern dissonance. Fincher, meanwhile, peppers the film with little nods to Kane, such as an empty bottle that drops from Mankiewicz’s hand in the same way that Kane’s snow once rolled to the floor, or in a familiar violent outburst that leaves a room rearranged.
But this passion project isn’t quite a love letter to Hollywood; it’s closer to a tribute to the artists chipping away on its underside. “You always side with the writer!” someone accuses Mankiewicz in the middle of a discussion, and the same is true of Fincher’s ode to creatives, a scorching celebration of filmmakers who aren’t afraid to ask a lot of their audience. 132 minutes, it turns out, isn’t very much at all – Mank is no Citizen Kane, but it flies by like a boy playing with his sled.
Mank is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.