Art and politics collide in David Fincher’s ambitious and elegant effort that plays an extolling tribute to screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, superbly embodied by Oscar winner Gary Oldman in “Mank” that should be a darling at next year’s Academy Awards. The film is a greatly paced chronicle of the career of a fragile and passionate Hollywood screenwriter responsible for writing some of the most championed movies ever made, including sharing a co-writing credit with Orson Welles for the much renowned masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”
Bold and engrossing, “Mank” offers a complex and fascinating portrait of a deeply talented man who operated in Hollywood’s capitalistic and greedy fringes, and David Fincher working on a 30 year-old screenplay from his deceased father Jack Fincher who died in 2003, is interested in championing his fathers vision while playing tribute to artistic and political expression that also plays as a self-reflexive allegory of American’s current political atmosphere. Jack Fincher’s screenplay is certainly fragmented, as it shifts in between different periods of Herman’s life, but it’s filled with authentic details and elegant stylization as one would expect from the conceptual auteur who has helmed such cinematic masterpieces as “Se7en”, “Zodiac,” and “The Social Network.” His latest film, “Mank” certainly ranks up there as one of his greatest achievements and will be considered being in the same caliber as his previous masterworks.
Fincher places Mankiewicz in the context of Hollywood in the 1930s. A pivotal point in US history where fascism and Hitler’s Third Reich was rising overseas in Europe, and the red scare of communism and socialism was just starting to surface as big business and the wealthy found the ideas of socialism to be a threat to their financial and personal interests during a time of great economic suffering that resulted from the Great Depression. Very much structured like “Citizen Kane,” “Mank” works within the framework of fragmented flashbacks. The past segments focus on Mankiewicz’s milieu existence as he was employed by MGM Studio that was populated and funded by the wealthy ruling class. Mankiewicz creative supervisors and entourage includes William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Heart’s actress and mistress Miron Davies (Amanda Seyfriend—who deserves Oscar consideration), and MGM Co-Founder and Producer Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard).
The present tense is 1940, just a year before the release of “Citizen Kane” and months before production, Herbert “Mank” (Oldman) in cast up after suffering a broken leg in a car accident, he’s staying at a house in a valley in California where he liquors up and prepares for his next screenplay. His entourage here includes Orson Welles’s collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who motivates Mank, a beautiful British named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who does the typing for Mank, and who also serves him with encouragement; and we often get phone calls from Orson Welles himself (Tim Burke) who often keeps tabs on the progression of Mank’s screenplay that holds a tight deadline. Once Rita begins typing out the screenplay, she soon realizes that the script is loosely based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearts, and this results in the flashback in what led to Mank’s inspiration for the screenplay that he is co-writing with Orson Welles on that would later eventually become the 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane.”
The flashbacks are indeed highly engaging, as it paves the way from some dramatically rich and beautifully written exchanges that echo the astonishing exchanges and visual craftsmanship found in Fincher’s “The Social Network” and “Zodiac”. One includes a breathtaking tracking shot of a symmetrical corridor hallway where Mank and his younger brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and then novice screenwriter who would later become a great director, talk with Mayer about the origins of MGM that leads them into the the back loft of production grips and other MGM workers in which Mayer asks them to take a pay cut until the economy recovers once FDR re-opens the banking institutions. Eventually Mayer invites Mank to an eloquent party where Mank makes a great impression with Hearst who admires his banter and wit which leads Mank to become a regular at Heart’s mansion, in which he also lands a head screenwriting job at MGM studios. The observations Mank makes at the banquet dinners and parties is what brings the creative spark for what would become the “Citizen Kane” screenplay.
It’s there where “Mank” becomes a timely and deeply parable and rather relevant commentary on politics (both modern and historical)–and how it’s influenced deeply by big money and mass media. During the banquet dinner in the early 1930s, the discussion of the 1934 California gubernatorial race is brought up, in which acclaimed author Upton Sinclair is running on a socialist platform. Mayer and Hearts, both Republicans, hold deep fear of socialism, even as the Depression goes further on and FDR, recently elected, is promoting wealth redistribution with his New Deal policies poses a threat to Heart and Mayer’s pockets. As the election gets closer, Sinclair ends up winning the Democratic nomination, Hearst and Mayer end up backing Sinclair’s Republican’s opponent Frank Merriam, which ends up being one of California’s most controversial and heated elections. Strongly opposed and politically sympathetic to Sinclair’s principles, Mank challenges the Red scare baiting in which Mayer would openly label Sinclair a “Red Bolshevik”, in which Mank explains that Communism is a sharing of property, and socialism is the sharing of wealth, and during the Depression while many American’s were struggling as the wealthy lived on in fears of their wealth being redistributed away. Fincher captures the hypocrisy quite well, reflecting back after he asks his grips and studio workers to cut their pay by half to save MGM, meanwhile did he cut his own pay? Sinclair would be outspent by Heartz’s and Mayer’s campaign donations, and Mayer also used the studio as a political weapon with fabricated interviews where the visual medium was used as a propaganda weapon to smear Sinclair and his policies. It’s there where Mank realizes that Hollywood is every bit as corrupt as the political machine, and in fact controlled by the same agenda of the wealthy oligarchs weaponizing their interests by undermining democracy by spreading despotism and fear.
These political themes and scenes are indeed some of the most passionate scenes Fincher has ever staged, and it also works because we realize what led to motivate Mank in using his disdain to write “Citizen Kane,” and each of these politically centered scenes are consistently gripping, cinematically striking, and of course historically resonant. Fincher and Oldman together mold the Markiewicz’s character well too, by showing an emotionally fractured and flawed man (A Fincher trait) that is shadowed by his own demons of alcoholism, gambling, and other forms of self-destruction.
In many ways “Mank” feels like a reworking of Fincher’s other biopic, “The Social Network,” which is about Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook. But where some of the details in “The Social Network” were indeed fabricated for dramatic purposes, “Mank” is quite historically accurate, but both films are about insecure men who’s great success and aspirations led to more internal torment and insecurity. Oldman’s performance here is certainly Oscar-caliber, and one of the best performances of the year that should generate him another Oscar nomination, and Fincher is able to capture his angst, anxieties, and pathos quite well as a man who’s been pushed towards holding great distance and hostility towards Hollywood.
Filming in black-and-white for the very first time, Fincher’s and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s high contrast, highly stylized photography is aesthetic pleasing that keeps true to the style. Thematically the film is highly accomplished as well, as Fincher works on the “Beneath the surface” themes that exposes and rather confronts how politics co-opts all forms of life, even the entertainment history.
Deeply layered and richly dense, “Mank” is a movie about movie making, artistic expression, the anxiety and suffering artists endure for their creativity. On another level, it’s a wonderful detailed period piece and unconventional biopic that dives into the routine framework of a traditional biopic but is elevated thanks to mature craft and artistry. On another level, “Mank” is a deep commentary on the endless state of politics–and how to this date democracy is still compromised due to fear mongering and big spending.
Both on a technical and performance level, “Mank” triumphs. Greatly directed and at times more restraint to Fincher’s visual flair while never losing his visual slickness, each performance has a great moment to shine. Though all supporting performers give solid performances, Amanda Seyfried’s work should be championed at the year’s end critic awards and Oscar considerations (Seyfried has never been nominated), and Gary Oldman should also be nominated for Best Actor.
Overall, Fincher has made a stellar film that recalls other historical dramas about show business in the golden era of filmmaking like Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” (That also featured Orson Wells played by Vincent D’Onforio) and the thematically similar film directed by Tim Robbins titled “Cradle Will Rock” which was also about social movements colliding with power. Ultimately, “Mank” is high-style filmmaking wrapped in as a brilliant chronicle of a wounded protagonist whose artistic anguish and inner turmoil were never matched by the immortal forces of power and selfishness. “Mank” is truly a stunning piece of filmmaking.