Movies about Hollywood have a habit of getting Oscar attention, which sounds cynical, but when a great filmmaker tackles their field of work, it can be more insightful and personal than usual. Just like he did 10 years ago with The Social Network and 12 years ago with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher is taking a break from dark thrillers to do something different, this time telling the story behind the creation of the grandfather of cinematic classics, Citizen Kane. And whilst it might not be that at that level, it is still a great movie.
In 1930’s Los Angeles, screenwriter Herman Mankowitz (Gary Oldman) has injured himself in an accident. Whilst in a motel and resting in a bed, unable to walk, he starts to write a screenplay based on the instructions of future writer-director Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who wants to make a feature film. As he writes the screenplay, he remembers the past few years of his life, including his relationships with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and businessman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), his conflicts with political matters and his desire for personal integrity in the studio system.
Mank does somewhat emulate Citizen Kane in structure and visuals, but largely Fincher makes this far more than a hollow tribute. It’s a surprisingly cynical and bitter look at 30’s Hollywood and California as a whole, one that feels particularly relevant this year. The focus on the Governor election of socialist Upton Sinclair vs republican Frank Merriam ties into the story through Herman’s own disapproval of Merriam’s heavy support and the fake newsreels produced to support him, with the studio heads and Hearst being characterised as corrupt tools of an artless system (Imagine a 30’s film that Hollywood would have never released). It is refreshing for a tribute to old cinema to have the guts to go for a non-sunshiny portrayal.
Despite this, there is a lot of humanity and heart present in many sequences. This is one of Fincher’s more sentimental films, especially in regards to the fact that this feels like a personal tale for him when you take into account his struggles against the studio on films like Alien 3 and the fact that his late father Jack was the screenwriter. The heart is most prominent in scenes with the female characters, like the vivacious Davies, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), Herman’s loving wife or Nurse Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). The relationships in general in Mank are all believable and interesting.
What makes the film compelling is the story, characters, and dialogue. Whilst the non-linear narrative can at times be a bit jarring, it’s weaved together nicely and it manages to tell a coherent and well-structured story out of what could have been a summary of events or a cliched unrealistic depiction of reality (a lot of biopics are one of these or both of them). The characters are all well-defined, complicated, and entertaining and the dialogue is excellent, going for fast witty exchanges delivered expertly with a lot of depth behind them.
As for everything non-script related, the direction by Fincher is the real highlight. The reaction of 30’s film is not only marvellously endearing to any film fan, but also very entertaining. The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt is gorgeous if a bit dark, the fuzzy yet realistic sound design is effective, the score is another win for Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, setting the mood for the period and the editing is fast and tight. Finally, all of the acting is top notch, as Gary Oldman once again nails it as the buffoonish yet likeable Mankowitz and the ensemble cast all support him well, particularly Arliss Howard as the sleazy Louis B Mayer, Lily Collins pulling off a really great British accent and Amanda Seyfried being at her most charismatic in years as Marion Davies.
Mank is not only yet another impressive artistic achievement for David Fincher, but one of the most entertaining and enjoyable films of the year. It is only fitting that the so-called “Greatest Movie of All Time” should be fit material to produce one of the best movies of the year.