Director – David Fincher
Cast – Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance
Alternately hard-nosed and dewy-eyed, Mank is the most fiendishly entertaining movie about movies since Ben Affleck’s Argo. It’s satirical but sweet, weary but vengeful — it’s unlike anything director David Fincher has ever made.
An early scene offers a disclaimer of sorts. You can’t capture a man’s life in two hours, says our protagonist, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. The best you can hope for is an impression. Mankiewicz, or Mank, as he is affectionately known about town, seems to always be armed with witticisms such as this. Even (and especially) when he’s drunk.
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Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the impending Second World War, Mank is part-biopic, part-manifesto — an unconventional movie that functions not as a photograph of the writer’s life, but a painting. Like Fincher’s best film, The Social Network, it also attempts to address an argument about authorship, over an artefact of more cultural value than even Facebook.
Directed by the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is widely considered to be the greatest film of all time. It is also the subject of much controversy surrounding its screenplay. Officially, both Mankiewicz and Welles shared credit (and also the film’s only Oscar). But Mank, the movie, suggests that Mankiewicz was Citizen Kane’s sole writer. The film was a product of his disintegrating mind, an artistic fireball of his anxieties; it was his magnum opus. Not Welles’.
But those days, it was common for writers to do uncredited work on movies. Mankiewicz himself was involved in writing The Wizard of Oz, and is generally considered to be the creative force behind the film’s Kansas sequence. In Mank, the alcoholic writer collapses on a bed and predicts that Oz will sink the studio. He was wrong.
Played magnificently by Gary Oldman, Mankiewicz doesn’t come across as a man of great instinct. He seems to bag jobs almost by accident — perhaps after impressing an important studio head with his wit at a party, or by offering a shoulder of support to someone’s sister. He was a man’s man, a ladies’ man, a man about town.
Mank is the story of the circumstances under which he wrote Citizen Kane — against a deadline and in isolation. He was bedridden, beleaguered and bummed out; the events in his life inspired the film’s characters, and contributed to his growing disdain for the film industry. Having roundly rejected the notion that Welles had anything to do with the writing of Citizen Kane, Mank is almost as unkind to the ’dog-faced prodigy’ as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was to Bruce Lee.
But unlike Tarantino, who was involved in a similar authorship dispute with writer Roger Avary on Pulp Fiction, Fincher has never written any of his own movies. In Mank, he takes a mallet to the auteur theory — that the director is the sole creative voice behind a film — and in typically brash Fincher fashion, chooses to make his point by demolishing the myth of perhaps the most majestic of all Old-Hollywood directors, Orson Welles.
Mank, the film, reduces Welles’ presence to just a handful of scenes — most of them unfolding over terse phone calls, with actor Tom Burke’s booming voice capturing the bravado that the filmmaker was so famous for. There’s barely a moment, however, without Mankiewicz.
Working off a screenplay by his late father Jack, Fincher gives the film a non-linear structure, with the ‘present day’ scenes of Mankiewicz, sequestered at a California ranch in a race against time to turn his script in, intercut with flashbacks to significant moments in his life. There’s a breakneck energy to both portions, with Fincher making bold moves on the chessboard, jostling dozens of pieces as the focus narrows, and only the two kings remain.
His grand gimmick here is to mimic the style of an old Hollywood movie by using techniques specific to the time, such as rear-projection, matte paintings, and scratchy mono sound. Crucially though, Fincher continues to be one of the foremost crusaders for digital filmmaking — the anti-Christopher Nolan, if you will.
Even here, in a movie that positively demanded to be shot on film stock, with ancient lenses and equipment unearthed from museums, Fincher and his cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt, have chosen to use custom-made RED cameras. He also neglects to shoot in the more period-accurate 4:3 academy ratio, which directors Steven Soderbergh and Michel Hazanavicius used for their own monochrome throwbacks, The Good German and The Artist, respectively.
Also read: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie review: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt shine; Quentin Tarantino shocks
Mank is a technically thrilling movie, sure to be studied by cinephiles for years. Every insert shot will be analysed, and every frame pored over. Netflix will almost certainly release multiple featurettes, offering a peek behind the curtain into Fincher’s obsessive mind. Unlike Citizen Kane, which slipped into obscurity almost immediately after its release (until it was re-evaluated years later), Mank will ‘trend’ online — dissected on message boards and theorised about in video essays. But it’s too early to tell if it will stand the test of time.