04 December 2020 22:31
Since it's a Netflix original, its viewership will likely dwarf the number of people who might have moseyed on down to an art-house theater in days of yore. And it's directed by David Fincher, whose taut thrillers — including Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl, Zodiac, and The Social Network — have earned him a reputation as a darkly savage crowdpleaser. It's not that a person outside that audience can't watch and, in broad strokes, understand the story of Mank. It's that to an extent, the film feels like inside baseball. (If you are interested in unpacking that inside baseball — which has to do with turn-of-the-century moguls, 1930s Hollywood politics, and film critics' feuds from the 1960s, check out this explainer.) Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane, which is still widely (and, by my lights, correctly) considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter who's been down on his luck and laid up by a car accident, is sent by a film producer to a remote house with a nurse and a secretary to write a screenplay for Orson Welles. Mank's second timeline begins about a decade prior, as Mankiewicz becomes acquainted with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), one of the richest and most famous men in America, and Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Mayer (Arliss Howard) — and Mankiewicz slowly realizes, through a number of experiences, that the industry he works in is both influential in ways that have nothing to do with entertainment, and morally bankrupt. Fincher, working from a screenplay written by his father Jack Fincher, makes obvious nods to films of the period and Citizen Kane specifically. There are fake effects intended to mimic what you might see on actual film, even though Fincher shoots digitally.
We live, in a sense, in the world that Mankiewicz and Hearst and Mayer and the rest of them made: one where the moving image has profoundly affected the way we perceive reality and what we believe to be true. In Mank's 1930s timeline, Mankiewicz is just catching on to the power that images, whether or not they're "real," exercise over the ordinary people who watch them. Meanwhile, it's difficult to ignore the irony of a movie like Mank being produced by Netflix, a Hollywood upstart, to be viewed, mostly, on people's TVs and laptop screens. Mankiewicz worked in was on the precipice of a shift, a loss of innocence, as the studio system began to stagnate and new ways of doing business appeared on the horizon. When it came to designing the costumes of David Fincher's "Mank," both costume designer Trish Summerville and production designer Donald Graham Burt used the noir and monochromatic filters on their iPhones to see how color would convert for Fincher's black and white film.
Mank takes an ant's-eye-view of this system, following Mankiewicz through the corridors of power as he interacts with Welles, the studio moguls Louis B. To most of these honchos, Mankiewicz is somewhere between an amusement and an irritant, and for much of Mank's running time that's all he is—until he finally decides to fight for his stamp on Kane. To Fincher, Mankiewicz's cynicism about Hollywood is a defense mechanism; it's a way for the writer to insulate himself from the creative frustrations of working within a monolithic business mostly to pay the bills. Those personal experiences informed the father and son's conversations about Mank, who went unacknowledged for many of his most famous Hollywood contributions, including the idea to have The Wizard of Oz play out partly in black-and-white and partly in color. Mank has been on Fincher's desk in some form since about 1992, when his father first presented him with an early draft of the screenplay that he had started as a retirement project. The original script, according to Fincher, was something of a "posthumous arbitration screed," based largely on the film critic Pauline Kael's infamous essay "Raising Kane," a 50,000-word argument that claimed Mankiewicz was the primary author of Citizen Kane. I pointed out to David Fincher that an early establishing shot of a glitzy studio lot, with animals walking around and extras hanging out in costume, quickly cuts to a bathroom where executives are talking—where the actual business is being done. "My father liked highbrow things, but one of his favorite movies was [the comedy] Hearts of the West," Fincher said. "So he had a little bit of a cheeseball idea of what Hollywood was about." So, no, the establishing shot of the lot isn't meant as a jab at cinema. The surprise of David Fincher's Netflix movie Mank isn't that another beloved auteur has made his movie about movies, it's that Fincher's version isn't about a visionary, obsessive director — actual or metaphorical. Mankiewicz, a frequent uncredited script doctor in golden-age Hollywood, and a credited co-writer of Citizen Kane, who shared the film's only Academy Award with director-star Orson Welles. While Fincher has a reputation more like Welles' controlling grandiosity than the witty, put-upon writer who can't stop himself from making devastating cracks, the screenplay credit for Mank reveals a possible source of this unexpected loyalty: It's written by Fincher's late father Jack, who completed his draft in the late 1990s. (The elder Fincher shared Mankiewicz's hybrid background of journalism and screenwriting.) Moreover, Mank isn't really about a Citizen Kane credit arbitration. The movie's Welles does fume when Mank (Gary Oldman) decides he wants his name on the picture after initially agreeing to anonymity. Instead of focusing on the actual making of Citizen Kane, the movie jumps back and forth in time, covering Mankiewicz's 1930s experiences in Hollywood and in the social circles of mogul William Randolph Hearst (Game of Thrones star Charles Dance), which inform the Kane script. Mankiewicz gets to know Hearst through a mildly flirtatious bond with his mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Years later, Mank works on the Welles assignment while he's laid up in seclusion, recovering from a car accident and (temporarily, barely) restricted from alcohol by his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). But unlike any Hollywood movie from the 1930s or '40s, Mank was shot on digital cameras, in the ultra-widescreen 2.35 aspect ratio. When a hungover Mank stumbles onto an outdoor film shoot on the Hearst property and chats with Davies between takes, the spotlights and fake smoke produce an overlay of alternate reality against the natural backdrop. (Seyfried's acting here also has a crispness missing from her mushier work.) As for Mank himself, Oldman is older than Mankiewicz was when he died, never mind 15 to 20 years earlier, when the film takes place. But Fincher makes that disconnect work, too: Even in his prime, Mank conducts himself with a spirited resignation — a paradoxical acknowledgment that his saving graces (talent, wit, some manner of principles) won't actually save him. Though the movie takes unofficial cues from Pauline Kael's 1971 account of the making of Citizen Kane (which was largely refuted in later years), it's ultimately not a writer's revenge or even a lament, at least not about screenwriting in particular. David Fincher's new film Mank, premiering December 4 on Netflix, tells the story of legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and his rollercoaster experience writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane. The film features a who's who of Hollywood heavyweights from the time, including Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Arless Howard as Louis B.