There is a sad irony to David Fincher’s love letter to Old Hollywood being a big new release for Netflix. Mank is the company’s big hope for Oscar glory, as films about the film business tend to go down well with the people in it (Birdman, La La Land, The Artist, Adaptation… we could go on). However, this dissection of movie history may be worth the accolades.
Set in real-life Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, Gary Oldman plays the title role of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, as he is affectionately known by his colleagues, is a talented writer whose gift is side-tracked by a love of booze and women. Having burned every bridge in Tinseltown, he is approached by a young Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write his new epic, Citizen Kane.
Widely acknowledged to be loosely based on media mogul William Randolph Hurst (Charles Dance), the script for Kane is written in sixty days by Mank as he nurses a broken leg, tended to by British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). As news of this brilliant but scandalous screenplay spreads around town, we flashback to Mank’s days with MGM, and the events that inspired his most famous work.
It should be mentioned up front that, this is one version of the truth. Both Mankiewicz and Welles are credited as writing Citizen Kane, for which they both won Oscars. Debates rage on to this day as to the contribution of both men, but in the world of this film Mankiewicz is the sole writer. All biopics take liberties with the truth, but few do it as stylishly as Mank.
Filmed in luxurious black-and-white, and sporting little intricacies like ‘cigarette burn’ marks in the corner of the frame, it feels like a movie from the period in which it is set. More than a behind the scenes piece, Fincher holds no punches as he pulls back the curtain on a world of backroom deals, manipulation, and dirty politics. It’s nostalgic for the real Old Hollywood, in all its ugly glory.
Mank’s own writing credit goes to Jack Fincher, David’s father, who wrote it in the years before his death in 2003. Shelved since the late 90s, there’s a sense of release both in the writing and in a director given free reign to make the film he wants. Rich with cultural references, Amanda Seyfried’s starlet Marion Davies could well be speaking for the audience when she sighs “I hate shop talk, I never know what’s going on”. This is a movie for movie nerds, but even if you don’t know your MGM from your Paramount, the redemption of a broken genius is a story that will grab anyone.
The role is a feast for an actor like Oldman, clashingly brilliantly with Collins’ exasperated secretary/warden. It’s the flashback scenes where he excels, however, shambling across the screen with glee as he skewers the rich and powerful, drink always in hand. He has a lot to work with in Fincher Sr’s dialogue, which gives him brilliant asides like “Nemesis – that’s Greek for any guy in a black hat”. It’s a portrait of self-destruction, someone who might have ruled the town had he just resisted saying what was on his mind.
The notable supporting cast give Oldman a wide array of sparring partners. Seyfried is Mank’s kindred spirit, another soul underestimated by her superiors, and becomes the film’s emotional core. There are small, wonderful performances everywhere you turn – Arliss Howard’s studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who cries on command when trying to draw sympathy from employees; or Tom Pelphrey as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Herman’s brother whose own career is being threatened by his sibling’s antics.
The phrase “The Magic of The Movies” is used sarcastically by several characters in the film, but what makes Mank so brilliant is that it finds the magic in the people that make the movies. The sleaze behind the shiny veneer of Hollywood’s Golden Age is part of what makes it so compelling 80 years on, and Fincher plunges you into that world in a film that stands out even in his impressive CV.
Mank is in cinemas and on Netflix from 4th December.