David Fincher’s father Jack used to be a journalist. And then he became a screenwriter. His first stab at a story about the legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz did not impress his son. He failed to see the point in focusing on who got credit for what during the making of Citizen Kane (1941). But then Jack got back to work and his script turned into a portrait of ”Mank” himself, also showing how a gubernatorial election back in 1934 taught us that big business can buy elections.
Years later, thanks to the rise of Donald Trump, Fincher was more open to the idea that democracy is threatened by people who have the power and deep pockets to sway elections with lies.
Recovering after a car accident
In 1940, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is recovering after a car accident, but has a job to do. He’s been hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke), a wunderkind out of the New York theater scene, to write the script for Citizen Kane, his first Hollywood movie. Mank knows where to find the inspiration and starts recalling his first visit to Hollywood years ago. A place where ”millions are to be grabbed and your only competition is idiots”, this is where Mank first met actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seymour), mistress to the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). When he came to MGM and the almighty Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), who had a financial relationship with Hearst, he was drawn into a political showdown…
Always a matter of debate
Mankiewicz is depicted as the talent behind the Citizen Kane screenplay, which has always been a matter of debate, especially when famed critic and scholar Pauline Kael revived the issue with a 1971 New Yorker article. In his script, Jack Fincher was clearly inspired by her work, but it has since been widely refuted by other academics, as well as Peter Bogdanovich who was a close friend of Welles’s. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter exactly how the screenplay was written; Citizen Kane remains an artistic triumph where many talents deserve kudos.
The same is true of Mank (and, incidentally, that screenplay was also polished by co-producer and perennial Hollywood script doctor Eric Roth). There is so much to enjoy here. The dialogue is witty and sharp, worthy of Mankiewicz and his fellow New York talents who were brought to Hollywood after the death of silent cinema to make the talkies sound good. Oldman is perfect as the alcoholic, brazenly frank writer who is subjected to a moral crisis that years later becomes fuel for his Kane script. The supporting cast is brilliant, with Seyfried as the glamorous star who finds her independence in spite of an affair with a man she initially depends on for money and luck; Dance as the powerful Hearst; and Howard, who has a great monologue where he explains the philosophy behind MGM.
As for the political content, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the current climate in the U.S. Then it was Hollywood studios creating false ads for the governor, now it’s Fox News primetime hosts lying for the president.
The film is an arresting tour-de-force that takes us to a specific time and place with more or less the tools of that era; Mank may not be shot on film, but its look closely imitates that of 1940s pictures with gorgeous cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt. Kirk Baxter’s editing elegantly and carefully transitions us back and forth between different years, and the sound mix is in the richest possible mono. As for the music score? Let’s just say it’s intriguingly closer to 1940s Hollywood than Nine Inch Nails.
Mank 2020-U.S. 131 min. B/W. Produced by Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay: Jack Fincher. Cinematography: Erik Messerschmidt. Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Editing: Kirk Baxter. Cast: Gary Oldman (Herman J. Mankiewicz), Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies), Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst), Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey.
Last word: “The first draft just felt like revenge. I said to [Jack], ‘You’re talking about two people staking out their 40 acres, and never the twain shall meet. And that can’t happen if you’re making a movie. You don’t get to just do your thing.’ For all his magazine stories about filmmakers, he knew the vernacular but he didn’t understand where the blueprint ends and the geological survey begins. That was difficult. We worked on it for a while, and then I threw up my hands and went off to make ‘Se7en’.” (Fincher, Vulture)