Artists are all too often the playthings of the very rich. They are tolerated so long as they keep a cocktail party humming with barbed witticisms aimed at someone outside the room, or whip up a painting that matches the couch. The problem? Kept animals sometimes bite.
David Fincher’s Mank tells the story of one such scarring.
The new Netflix award-season hopeful relays a crucial part of the origin story of the single greatest and most durable clapback in the history of American culture: Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. That film class syllabus staple was co-written by the 25-year-old Welles and this movie’s titular hero, a 43-year-old drunk named Herman Mankiewicz, who if you believe the film—as well as Pauline Kael’s controversial 1971 essay “Raising Kane”—did most of the heavy lifting.
Mankiewicz is played by the 62-year-old Oscar-winner Gary Oldman with an incredible drive and a profound understanding of what it means to let your own worse instincts get in the way of your ambitions. As embodied by the irascible Oldman, Mank is a man not only trapped inside a bottle, but also in a Hollywood studio system that has no idea what to do with his Algonquin Round Table bon mots other than have him sprinkle them into other people’s scripts, whether it was touching up a Wallace Beery movie or reimagining the Kansas sequences in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
Regardless of who typed the words on to the page, it was Welles (played imperiously if briefly by The Souvenir’s remarkable Tom Burke) conspiring with Mank as he recovers from a serious car accident, who jimmied the lock on those shackles. Soaring into town on the wings of an unprecedented contract with RKO that allowed the radio wunderkind complete artistic control of two films, Welles entrusted Hollywood’s beloved clown prince to do the devil’s work and write the piece that not only would score him an Oscar but also serve as the calling card for the few years that he remained alive. (Mankiewicz would die in 1953 of complications from alcoholism.)
But while Welles is Mankiewicz’s emancipator, he is not his creative collaborator—in the film at least. That job falls, quite unexpectedly, to Marion Davies, whose unusual friendship with Mank is told through a series of extended flashbacks meant to echo the ingenious structure that Welles and Mankiewicz devised for their greatest collaboration.
Cinema’s resident muse, Amanda Seyfried, imbues Davies with joy, intelligence and a steely compassion that goes a long way towards rescuing the screen star from the skewering she received in Kane. In this way and others, the film feels like a gift from Mankiewicz to Davies from beyond the grave.
The way that Seyfried and Oldman play off of each other in their stolen moments together—on the set of a vanity project, escaping a cocktail party to swill the good stuff, in the back of a car on the studio lot—allow the movie to shake off the sometimes starchy cleverness of its meticulous construction. When they share the screen, Mank blooms into something so much more than a talented director’s pricey vanity project from a streaming service on the hunt for prestige—it becomes singular and moving.
Both Mankiewicz and Davies are seals performing for the same master, something she is aware of throughout but is a situation he only awakens to slowly. Game of Throne’s Charles Dance plays William Randolph Hearst as a vortex of negative energy— someone more experienced than truly seen. As his lieutenants, the great character actor Arliss Howard plays Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s domineering and excitable figurehead, while Ferdinand Kingsley (Ben’s son and Francatelli from the series Victoria) is smooth as a bladed silk scarf as the town’s all-time greatest fixer, Irving Thalberg.
Admirers of this movie are likely to tag Mank a “love letter”—to the black-and-white films that cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter) so affectionately emulates, to the forgotten widget makers of the Hollywood soul-crushing assembly line, and to perhaps the greatest movie ever made on this country’s soil. But that is a grave misnomer; Fincher’s film is far too angry for that. Perhaps it might be more accurate to call it a thank you note that rather sourly suggests the dinner was overcooked.
But in truth, every thing about Fincher’s film—from his resurrection of his late father Jack’s script to his exacting recreation of a Hollywood in the midst of a creative explosion that it wouldn’t experience again for another 30 years or so—is a call to arms.
This was a man who saw with crystalline clarity the devastation that money and the people that wielded it to bend reality to their will bring to the world—and most keenly to those curious creatures who create art. Instead of being ground into dust, this man, this Mank, used a few of his last breaths to fight back, and in doing so helped to create a piece of art that will outlast all of us.
Mank will have a limited theatrical release on November 20, and will be available to stream on Netflix December 4.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.