Dir. David Fincher; Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins
[4 out of 4 stars]
It has been six years since David Fincher directed a motion picture. The last was Gone Girl (2014), capping off a 15-year run of directorial features that toed the line between critical darlings and popular crowd pleasers. These included the trio of modern masterpieces Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007), and The Social Network (2010). Fincher has always been a creator who seems tapped into the rare ability to make art that reflects his particular view of the world while maintaining an accessibility that allows for viewers to pick their depth of engagement and enjoy accordingly. The aforementioned Zodiac can function both as a masterful slow-burn thriller for those who choose not to look any deeper while also expanding into a menacing contemplation on the travails of obsession for anyone who prefers to peel back a few more layers. Fincher’s return to the big screen this year with Mank (2020) marks what I see as a move away from that multi-access point filmmaking into a project that requires extant knowledge of film history to understand it. I love this, and as a result, Mank emerges as a testament to Fincher’s power both as a filmmaker and a devoted cinephile. But viewers be warned, if you have not seen Citizen Kane (1941), you should probably hold off on watching Mank until you have.
Mank follows Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) in 1940 as he writes the script for Citizen Kane while recuperating in bed from a bad leg injury. On orders from Orson Welles (Tom Burke) himself, John Houseman (Sam Troughton) has set Mank up in a rehab house of sorts in the desert so he can write without distraction. Mank is cared for and watched over by nursemaid Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and pseudo-assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). He gets down to work dictating to Rita and parsing through the particulars of what evolves into one of the most important scripts of the 20th century. While watching his writing process, we also follow Mank’s thoughts as he drifts back into his memories of 1930’s Hollywood and the experiences that have compelled him to write a script taking a thinly-veiled aim at his former friend William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). These memories reveal his complicated relationships with MGM Studio Head Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), and especially his fascinating friendship with actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Altogether, the two storylines operate as a stirring portrait of a man facing down his mistakes and personal failures while also shedding light on Old Hollywood and how it assisted in giving birth to Citizen Kane.
In form and function, Fincher and his creative team construct Mank to approximate much of Citizen Kane while using that reference point to offer an addendum to the Welles mythos that followed its release. Structurally, screenwriter Jack Fincher’s (David’s father) script repurposes the clash of past and present to explore Mank’s internal tumult instead of the Freudian exposé of Charles Foster Kane’s (Orson Welles) sordid life. The result is a tonic against Hollywood’s beloved ‘Great Man’ mode of storytelling. We are without question meant to see Mank as a good man and a gifted writer, but we also see plenty of how he harmed those who loved him as a result of his alcoholism and confrontational behavior. Citizen Kane dipped all the way back into childhood to understand why Kane became the man he was. Mank does not attempt to go that far back, instead analyzing the Hollywood system that both enabled and ended up destroying Mank for having political and moral opinions different to the ruling class (more on that later). The Finchers invite us to compare the films by constructing a number of scenes that directly parallel Citizen Kane, all helped along by the distinct choice to shoot the film in black and white, making it look even more like the Old Hollywood fare it is invoking. One in particular has remained at the front of my mind, coming from an extended sequence at Meyer’s election night party where Mank is one of the few who has no love for the Republican Party. He sits at the head table in front of a bright tallying board where the votes for the Gubernatorial Race are being updated, and Fincher places his camera just behind Mank to highlight his profile. The similarity to the scene where Kane stands in front of a giant poster of his likeness to give a political speech is striking, but here Mank is kept in the shadows, turned to a dark outline of a human by the very political machinations that Kane stepped into. Mank is a man of different goals than the creature he constructed in his script, and the Finchers make sure we see the difference.
Mank emerges as Fincher’s most explicitly political film to date. The disdain for studios, phony politicians, and capitalism writ large that normally operates as subtext in his projects is central to the story here. The Finchers display this primarily through Mank’s relationships with Meyer and Hearst, the men who pay his salary but whose beliefs he fundamentally opposes. Meyer is a masterful counterfeiter of human sentiment, pretending to tearfully care about the “family” at MGM while making decisions that do anything but support that. In one especially nauseating moment, Meyer addresses the various crew members, actors, and other personnel to say he will have to cut their salaries by “one third” for the foreseeable future because of the ongoing Depression, while revealing backstage after his “performance” that he will not be taking such a hit himself. It is an indictment of the selfishness at play in the studio system, and due to Meyer’s strong backing of Republican candidates, sticks with his politics as the film goes on. Hearst is similar, and in one dinner party scene, Hearst and Meyer hold court as the conversation turns to Germany and Hitler’s rise. Both powerful men are dismissive of the potential for his rise, making jokes about his military conquests to that point. Only Mank calls them out, admittedly aided by copious drink. The scene operates in a way that draws a clear connection between these two men with their God-complexes, and how their corresponding senses of entitlement and unconcern for the lives of those outside their elevated social circle lead to the suffering of others. As if all that wasn’t enough to prove that Fincher wants to knock the studios and Republicans down a few pegs, he pulls in Bill Nye “The Science Guy” to cameo as Upton Sinclair delivering a campaign speech that rails against the deniers of science and morality in the Republican Party. Taken together, Fincher mounts a sardonic takedown of two structures he has little patience for.
Fincher is famous for assembling all-star casts, and Mank is no different. Dance and Howard chew the scenery as the de-facto villains of the film, while Collins and Pelphrey transform somewhat underwritten parts into compelling grace notes in the film. Even Burke manages to turn what could have fallen to the realm of an SNL-style Welles impression into a notable embodiment of the “Boy Wonder.” No matter, this movie belongs to two people, and they are Seyfried and Oldman. Seyfried is a supporting figure, but her work as Davies should redefine what Hollywood expects of her. Her transformative work in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) and First Reformed (2017) left me impressed, and here she morphs again into the Brooklyn-born starlet who feels out of place in Hearst’s orbit, but nonetheless grateful for the chance to act. The accent is perfect, and her mastery of the persona makes me almost wish she and Fincher would return to the character for a Davies bio-pic. She shines the brightest in her scenes with Oldman, especially a walk around the Hearst estate where they discuss their lives and failings while flanked by the various zoo animals and gardens that Hearst keeps around. Seyfried stands on her own, but like any great supporting role, she also unlocks more in the leading role, showing us a tenderness to Mank we otherwise do not really see. Oldman’s performance is equal parts simmering and bombastic. He is bed-ridden in the present, but with glances, slurring words, and a delectably expressive accent, he builds the older Mank into a broken man with one last great idea. But he also shines in the flashbacks, delivering a nearly endless supply of withering glances and one-liners that make Mank Fincher’s funniest film to date. When he arrives at a Hearst dinner party drunk as ever and delivers a monologue about power and privilege, it is on par with the best work that Oldman has ever done.
Mank is made for people who love movies, but more than that, for those of us who revel in the history of Hollywood as much as the films that resulted from that history. Working from this script by his late father, it feels as though Fincher has chosen to make a personal film that is a deviation from the broadly accessible fare he usually releases. This may be seen as pretentious by some, but I am personally revelling in it. The man is one of my favorite working filmmakers, and to see him dive this deeply into the grit and pain of Old Hollywood is a treat unto itself.