Something of a must-see movie for cinema fans, the only real disappointment about David Fincher’s Mank is that, for the moment, we won’t be seeing it on the big screen. That said, there’s plenty to revel in during this biographical depiction of key moments in the life of fabled screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played with considerable elan by Gary Oldman. The specific springboard here is the genesis of arguably the greatest film of all time, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but Fincher notably isn’t content to go for a surface Shakespeare In Love ‘here’s where the ideas came from’ number, but also has one eye on the politics of America in 2020. That decision gives Mank a real edge, and while the scrupulous levels of detail involved in this recreation of Old Hollywood may put off casual Netflix viewers, this is one of Fincher’s most rich and thoughtful movies to date.
Part of the charm is the way that Mank mirrors aspects of Citizen Kane itself; the film’s structure similarly jumps back and forward in time in a creative manner, and captures the points of inspiration for Mankiewicz. We get to see the real-life character that inspired Kane, William Randolf Hearst (Charles Dance) and Amanda Seyfried steps up to evoke film-star Marion Davies. And Hearst’s infamous twit-wealth sends Fincher’s production design into overdrive, showing us Xanadu in its native form, with giraffes and monkeys making up part of the menagerie in which Davies finds herself trapped. Or is she as trapped as Citizen Kane’s script suggests? Part of the story revolves around how much, or how little of the original Kane script was true or not, and the answers are revealing.
Adapting a script written by his own late father, Fincher takes a hard political tack as well, looking into the fake news of the 1930’s in the form of newsreel footage, and not afraid to deal with union laws and labour issues of the Great Depression. And Herman J. Mankiewicz himself is portrayed as a resolute drunk, but also as a notable wit, and Oldman has a field day with some choice dialogue. ‘Write hard, aim low’ is advice given here, but Jack Fincher clearly aimed high with a story offering a strong personal core, but also a wide cultural and political resonance. Any film that climaxes with a speech about Don Quixote followed by a parable about an organ grinder and his monkey can’t be accused of underestimating the audience; this is high-faluting stuff, delivered on a sixpence.
As with The Irishman, some may carp at Netflix’s success being very much in terms of getting A list directors to bring them properties which would be unlikely to make it as big studio projects elsewhere. Dense, thoughtful and shot in luxurious black and white, this is a major work from Fincher, not conventionally accessible in the fashion of Se7en or Gone Girl, but entirely successful in its own terms. With a gallery of Hollywood greats as walk-ons, and an atmosphere redolent for the Golden Age of Hollywood, this is a real treat for cinema connoisseurs, and something of a genuine triumph for Jack and David Fincher.
Thanks to Netflix for advanced access to this title.