Written by: Jack Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton
Crafting daring cinema tends to ruffle some feathers because it tackles ideas or confronts people not used to anything other than adulation. It’s what made the creation of 1941’s Citizen Kane such an audacious movie, which Mank sought to highlight. Even with its disputed interpretation of events, this masterwork brings back one of cinema’s greatest directors in stunning style.
Following a car accident, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is kept in isolation so he can focus and finish the script for a feature in collaboration with new and upcoming director Orson Welles (Tom Burke). As he attempts to beat the countdown to the script’s due date, he thinks back to the moments in the past that will influence him in writing a dangerous and ambitious story.
With varying opinions of who truly wrote the script of what many consider to be the greatest movie ever made, Mank certainly makes no qualm about what side it takes but it remains immaterial. Do you want to know why? It’s because either way, the story and how it gets written, directed, and acted undoubtedly put together a sensational film. Equally entertaining as it is insightful, this film provides so much to enjoy, particularly if you happen to be a fan of classic Hollywood. All of the homages and the entire style of the feature overall sends both a love letter to the classic style of Hollywood filmmaking while also displaying dissent for the political machinations that turned all of the gears.
Written by David Fincher’s father, Mank allows the audience to follow one man in his personal journey, in which he writes one of the most daring scripts while simultaneously showing exactly what inspired it all. The two narratives take place in the writing process and then he looks back at his time interacting with the likes of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and several others who directly served as the influence for Citizen Kane. The smooth-talking and unrestrained Mankiewicz weaved through Hollywood in a way not many could because he had the talent to support it. He could walk onto any set and would be recognized and similarly by those he owed gambling debts. Mankiewicz always seemed to walk a fine line with people and his unbridled demeanor gets pushed to the limit, especially when this script gets widely known.
Through the sound design, cinematography, and overall look, this film wants to evoke the time period it took place in but also give the appearance of it being made in the era as well. In this area, Mank certainly succeeds, as one can easily forget they’re watching a film made in 2020 when sucked into a beautifully photographed world depicted in this brilliant feature. An echoey sound came from the audio of the characters speaking along with the opening title cards and the way these characters interact with each other, it certified itself as something that could have been made in the 1940s.
The script, however, really takes the cake in propelling the feature forward, as it gives its actors so many luscious lines of dialogue to deliver with all of the unfettered ferocity of the titular character. As a film many thought would be a love letter to Hollywood overall, it proves to have no interest in playing nice and looking back at the past with any form of nostalgia. For all the cynicism people feel about Hollywood filmmaking today, this film peels back the curtain to show how one had to sell their souls at times to get anything done in this industry. Whether it be making intentional moneymakers devoid of artistic fervor or straight-up propaganda, it serves as a reminder that Hollywood has always been a business before it ever considered artistic merits. As one of the executives stated, cinema as a business sells people memories, and while the owners forever keep the project for themselves. Heck of a business and they know it with plenty of cynicism as well with how much they distrust audiences to piece two coherent thoughts together.
Starring in the titular role is Gary Oldman, who puts in a better performance than what he won his Academy Award for unsurprisingly and he does so well in this challenging role. He needs to carry a charm with him even with his character either tipsy or purely intoxicated for a majority of his time on-screen. Oldman certainly gets aided by the screenplay and wonderfully biting speeches and diatribes he gets to go on, but the veteran actor captures the inner anguish of this man. The Mankiewicz the audience sees in the process of writing this daring film has no friends in the industry outside of his brother and as much as he wants to pretend he wants it that way, it certainly takes a toll. The juxtaposition of the flashbacks certainly aid in displaying the two different lives Mankiewicz has lived in the Hollywood system and it allowed Oldman to find the right moments to take on the more sensitive scenes and when he needs to turn it up.
The lead actor nearly has the entire film stolen right from under him by Amanda Seyfried portraying Marion Davies. Ultimately, Davies proved to be the victim caught in this battle of pride and impropriety, as everything occurring with this script did her a disservice and Mank recognizes it. Seyfried, given this dazzling opportunity, works between the margins to show the never-ceasing pain this woman endured by being both this bumbling hostess but also a woman who knows more than the men around her would ever believe. The actor accomplishes this through restrained looks in moments and how emotions sit right at the edge for her but still remaining strong because Davies could not show outward emotion in this manner. She delivers a complete treat and services the story’s pursuit to show the true collateral damage involved with the creation of the 1941 classic.
For five years we were left waiting for a David Fincher feature film and he certainly came back with a bang, as he directed the hell out of this film. Opting for the classic aesthetic but still shooting on digital, this story comes together in such an authentic and riveting manner to truly transport the audience to this era. Opulence reigned and dutifully gets called out throughout the story as Fincher proves to be in complete control of the vision and scope of this film. He brings a kinetic energy to every scene that allowed even the truly dialogue-heavy moments to breeze on by with its pacing making this experience feel short and completely immersive. A welcomed return by the master director and I hope he continues to stay and deliver gems such as this one.
Much can be argued about who deserves the credit for the writing of Citizen Kane, but Mank does more than just try to pick a side, it looks at Hollywood and the studio system as the talent-sucking, ego-driven tornado of madness it has always been. It displays why it takes such an act of bravery to make a film about one of the most powerful men in California. The possibility of irritating one man and that alone can sink a career displays exactly why Mankiewicz tried to write this script. Power, love, art, and commerce all intersect in this blisteringly great and thoroughly enjoyable entry for one of the greatest living directors.