Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Mank trades in the grandeur and movie-making magic of Old Hollywood in the 1930s for something far more insidious: a look at the smarmy, capitalist underbelly of the fantasy industry.
Or as movie mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) says in the film, now streaming on Netflix: audiences pay in dollars while checking their disbelief at the door. It's all about the benjamins.
Mank is ostensibly about the creative process behind the making of Citizen Kane, that magnum opus viewed by some as the greatest movie of all time. Movie promotions have even mentioned that the film is an homage to the Hollywood at the start of the sound era. But neither is accurate.
Instead, David Fincher's latest film depicts a brutally mercantile Hollywood, even in the early days of sound when movies were still downy-cheeked. Studio bigwigs such as Mayer, Samuel L. Goldwyn and others tightly clutched their wallets and exacted complete, authoritarian control over production and its stars.
It is in this hothouse where alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (the great Gary Oldham) toils, near the bottom rung of the ladder. Working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Mankiewicz is among a group of screenwriters banished to a scribes' boiler room to churn out and fix scripts at the behest of the studio.
Talented writers work along Mank, such as George S. Kaufman, Charles McArthur and Ben Hecht. They are jaded, prone to playing dice games and cracking wise instead of churning copy at their typewriters. They are studio dogs and not the effete artists we may envision.
In Fincher's movie, fatigued cynicism lies at the heart of this disjointed but deeply probing look at vintage Hollywood. Mank is cast as the unlikely protagonist, a man so deep in the sauce that even when he is laid up with a broken leg, he must have a cabinet of liquor near his bedside.
Mank also offends as a mouthy court jester who cannot help but rile Mayer and others. He has no problem telling Mayer to his face that if Mank were to go to the electric chair, he'd want Mayer sitting on his lap. But in many scenes, Mank has enough trouble standing upright while delivering his wisecracks.
Oldham treads the role just right, as a man who clutches his writing talent like a buoy while piercing the armor of the greedy producers and studio heads that stifle his creative achievement. Dog bites the men who feed him.
But there is a lifeline for Mank. His friend Orson Welles (Tom Burke) offers him a chance to write an uncredited screenplay for a little independent film called Citizen Kane. Mank, laid up with the bum leg, must deliver from his bed, with help from a badgering assistant, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who is grappling with the disappearance of her fiancee over the Pacific during World War II.
This air of melancholic stress is broken by set-pieces from Mank's past. Fincher, a highly technical director, uses editing and production design to sweep the film through a series of fragmented scenes. He sends the camera through jump-cuts to the writers' room, to studio suites, to a production strike when Mayer cuts the pay of his workers, to election night to elect the next governor of California.
Fincher, well-known as the director of the Facebook drama The Social Network, has a history of taking a downbeat approach to a sunny subject. There is Mark Zuckerberg accused of stealing ideas. Fincher also directed Gone Girl, the melodramatic story of a wife who is not quite what she seems to be, and Zodiac, where the police can't quite catch a serial killer.
Fincher and cinematographer Eric Messerschmidt turn Mank into a technical wonder. The movie is shot entirely in 16mm black & white as it would have been in the 1930s. The images are clean and wide focus, with expressionistic, shadowy play with light and dark, as an homage to Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland.
A blinking dot appears in the upper right corner of certain scenes, an old-fashioned technique used to cue projectionists to change the film reel. But unlike a 1930s film using nitrate stock, the film is crisper and more attuned to our digital age.
In Mank, Fincher takes the making of Citizen Kane and turns it into a meditation on power. Writing the movie puts Mank in the cross-hairs of one of the most powerful men in America, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Citizen Kane fictionalizes Hearst and tells a sad tale of elevated ambition, success and a sudden, downhill spiral.
By the end of Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane, Hearst's stand-in, is alone with his money and pitiable. But the Hearst of Mank is still one of Hollywood's biggest power brokers.
Hearst has a stake in MGM studios, perilously putting Mank's job security on the line. But Oldham plays Mank as an idealist, a pure writer's writer who won't sacrifice his art.
Mank, the movie, becomes more alive when the screenwriter meets up with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whom Hearst supports professionally and lives with at his castle at San Simeon. Mank realizes that Davies is lonely "looking at the bay" and is controlled by a man more than twice her age.
Seyfried's character is much more than wall decoration for Hearst. She is a former showgirl from New York who is much smarter than she acts. She coyly plays with Mank's emotions, confiding in him as she would a father figure. She also reveals that she still loves Hearst, whom she calls Pops, for his devotion to her.
Seyfried, a great character actor known for the fizzy 2008 film Mamma Mia!, plays Davies with heart and passion. She also takes the movie out of its slightly confined settings inside MGM and at Mank's cottage, bringing a character who is a full-fledged person, unlike some of the shallower figures in the film. She is a revelation, the soul of this production.
Other side plots do not work quite as well. Fincher, who adapted the screenplay from his late father, Jack, had taken years to develop the story. But he retained a side story featuring the 1934 governor's election in California, where novelist Upton Sinclair was running on a socialist ticket that would upset business interests.
The movie industry supported Sinclair's more conventional opponent and played dirty tricks to keep Sinclair from being elected. These includes making propaganda films with actors faking real people concerned about Sinclair's effect on their livelihoods. But Mank had little to do with this activity, and it is a regression from the story.
A scene near the end of the film is among its pleasures, as a drunken Mank storms into a dinner party at the Hearst castle and begins to tell the story of Hearst's duplicity. He frames it as if he was explaining the plot of Citizen Kane.
Kane, or Hearst, becomes a Don Quixote figure in Mank's eyes, fighting windmills for the working class early in his career. But he then tells the guests of Kane's hypocrisy, as he becomes greedy and manipulative who is only out for his own gain. The character in his film, the Hearst surrogate, loses support from the working class because "they know he values power over people."
As Mank stammers through his speech, guests begin to leave the room. Hearst eventually walks Mank out and tells him a chilling tale, one concerning an organ grinder and a monkey. In essence, the monkey believes it is in control but the organ grinder can destroy that bit of whimsy, and the monkey itself, at any time.
With that backdrop, it is a bit of an achievement that Citizen Kane got made at all. It took an independent production company backed by Welles to put it out. But, although Mank sometimes gets lost in the storytelling weeds, it ultimately tells a tale of redemption, for Citizen Kane if not for Mank himself.