Anyone who loves cinema, or who knows somebody who loves cinema, will be all too familiar with Orson Welles classic film Citizen Kane. What is hard to believe in our days of superhero franchises and directors who have to prove themselves for years, is that Welles was only 24 when RKO studio essentially gave him a blank cheque and absolute free rein to make whatever kind of picture he wanted. With no studio oversight and no clear remit, even as to the genre the studio wanted, Welles somehow came up with a film that still tops best films polls, 80 years after it was made.
David Fincher has seemingly taken quite a detour from his more normal fare of dark, polished and complex thrillers with Mank. The script started life as a collaboration with Fincher’s late father, Jack who was an author himself. The pair had refined the story of the birth of a Hollywood classic Citizen Kane and the studio system which birthed it, even getting it to the stage of going to finance in 1997, (shortly after David had made his classic horror Se7en). Things didn’t work out for the project and the script stayed stashed on a shelf for 20 years. It has been somewhat of a passion project for Fincher, one which Netflix agreed to bring to life once he had finished work on their series Mindhunter. Fincher, much like Welles, had the trust of the studio to make something which was completely out of step with mainstream cinema.
Gary Oldman takes on the role of reporter turned screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, aka Mank. Mank is down on his luck, a tale which emerges in an appropriately cinnamon-roll-shaped narrative, echoing Citizen Kane itself, and has found himself employed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write a screenplay. The screenplay for the very same film with no studio interference. Mankiewicz however had recently been in a car accident and finds himself laid up in bed, weighed down by both a broken leg and his alcoholism. With the support of secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) he embarks work on writing the script outline which would be his very best work, but for which he still remains uncredited.
While the Hollywood studio drama starts as the centre of the story, Fincher weaves in a sub-plot which feels all too familiar to 2020 audiences, of a political race won on fear and outright lies, backed with a smart disinformation campaign. As Mank says “If you keep telling people something untrue loud enough and long enough, they’re inclined to believe it.”
Fincher wanted, as far as possible, to create an authentic late 1930s/1940s feel, telling his crew he wanted Mank to be a film which might be found in a can on a shelf next to Citizen Kane, covered in dust. Aside from the fact the ratio is very much NOT four by three, Mank does feel incredibly authentic – shot in black and white, the fast, stilted dialogue and the short scenes interspersed with sections which feel positively ponderous by 2020 standards. Add to this; THE BIG BAND! or indeed the orchestra constantly playing in the background, (score by long-time Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) which is purposely louder than the dialogue. Wonderous wipes! The clanging of typewriters! Exposition through telegram! All of these wonderful details will tickle every cinephile’s fancy. You can practically smell the whiskey and cigar smoke.
Oldman and the cast deliver excellent approximations of 1940s acting style. Film stock was expensive, so emotion or intention came far down a long list of requirements which was generally topped by “Did they say the lines right?” and “Were they on their mark?” Get the lines, hit the mark and that’s a wrap. Amanda Seyfried gives a wonderful turn as Marion Davies, Hollywood starlet and mistress of newspaper tycoon (and Kane prototype) William Randolph Hearst (played here by Charles Dance). She balances wide-eyed naivete with real warmth and somehow manages to capture that “well golly jeepers” attitude of the day without being insufferable.
“60 days to noodle” says Mankiewicz to Welles as he explains how long he has to write the script. 60 days in which to write a picture with no guidelines and no star. Fincher also feels like he is noodling in Mank. Noodling in the best, most playful way. Noodling like a man who knows the very bones of the medium and system he is working in and wants to put all that love, admiration and revulsion up on the screen.
Mank is as much a love letter to cinema as it is a hatchet job on Hollywood and the political system. Cinema, like politics, has a very thin veneer once you start picking away at it, and Fincher has held up a mirror to it all in the best possible way.
Mank is a technical marvel and a cinephile’s dream.
Mank will be available on Netflix worldwide from Friday 4 December 2020