Written by Jack Fincher
Directed by David Fincher
Jack Fincher died in 2003. He was a screenwriter and journalist out of Texas who married a nurse after serving in the airforce. Eventually, he would come to serve as the San Francisco bureau chief of Life magazine and pen a script that would be merged with others to make Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator. After a year-long battle with cancer, Jack Fincher passed away at the age of 72. His son, David Fincher, had become a critically acclaimed director by Jack’s passing. David had wanted to adapt his dad’s script about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the development of Citizen Kane, but the insistence on shooting in black and white led Hollywood to balk at the idea. It would be seventeen years after Jack’s passing that David would finally release his dad’s movie through Netflix.
Herman Mankiewicz, aka Mank (Gray Oldman), is taken to a house in the middle of nowhere in Victorville, California, after sustain injuries from a car accident. Orson Welles calls and gives Mank a shortened timeline to complete the script for Citizen Kane and abstain from Mank’s primary vice alcohol. A secretary has been assigned to the writer, Rita (Lily Collins), who will type up his story. The film jumps between this time in Victorville and the last decade’s events that inspired the story of the media mogul in Kane. While Mank writes a nonlinear narrative about this figure’s life, the film we are watching is told out of sequence and through the drunken fever dreams of the jaded writer.
Through the 1930s, Mank stumbles through Hollywood much to the chagrin of his doting wife Sarah and his brother Joe. He agrees to attend a soiree at a new young writer’s uncle’s house only to find out the uncle in question is William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the newspaperman responsible for propagandizing America into the Spanish-American War. Hearst’s latest venture has him diving into filmmaking to turn his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) into a movie star. Mank becomes caught up in Hearst’s social circles and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their disdain for Leftists and socialists like Upton Sinclair while not thinking there’s much to be worried about when it comes to Hitler and the growing Nazi movement in Germany.
If you are familiar at all with David Fincher’s filmography, you will immediately be struck by how jarringly different Mank is on the surface level from his previous works. This is very much an exercise in style for part of the film; Fincher has attempted to recreate the way movies looked, sounded, and felt in the period it takes place. He has even had digital cue marks on the film where the reel change would have been signaled to the projectionist. Fincher is known for his technical detail and has even compressed the sound to achieve the quality you would have heard in theaters in the 1940s. The musical score was recorded on older microphones, so it “has a sort of sizzle and wheeze around the edges.” These could be seen as unnecessary minutiae, but I would argue that it needs to feel like one of those pictures of its era in a movie about making movies.
The story is very much a defense of the writer. Citizen Kane was famously steeped in controversy as Mank would argue that Welles wasn’t around when the film was written. Welles shares the writing credit, which was a point of contention between the two men until Mank died. Through this man’s eyes, we see Hollywood not freshly but many years into the business and thoroughly pickled with alcohol. Pitching script ideas is done with little effort to studio executives who don’t trust you but can’t afford to lose you. We watch Louis B. Mayer sadly inform his studio employees of their 50% pay cut due to the Great Depression and come to tears over the matter. As he walks off stage, his demeanor returns to his cold, harsh tone, and Mank notes the phoniness of everything around him.
The only moment where our protagonist seems to perk up and listen is when he briefly overhears Upton Sinclair, then running for governor of California, talking about the need to redistribute wealth in this time of severe upheaval for the poor and working class. Later, Mank is roped into a scheme to create propaganda for Sinclair’s Republican opponent in the race, and it leads to a director friend experiencing a severe case of guilt at what they have done. What surprised me most was how political a film this ended up, exploring the intersection of the media and the expansion of the wealthy’s power.
I will say this is nowhere close to being my favorite David Fincher film. It does ultimately veer a little too close to traditional biopic territory than I like, but I can admit that I appreciate the craft that went into the film. Gary Oldman does what he does so well and disappears into the character he plays, and everyone around him does an outstanding job as well. If you come into the movie with a little backstory on the figures involved, I would assume you might get lost easily as the picture doesn’t give much exposition to explain who everyone is. In a year with such a drought of new cinema, it is such a delight to get such a wonderfully crafted picture made by one of our greats. And even better, no need to go out to a theater to watch it.