Early on in David Fincher‘s sharp, smart, and beautifully shot Mank, the legendary media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) shares an exchange with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) about the value of words. The newspaper tycoon rightly predicts that talking pictures are the future, and they’ll “need people who honor words to give them a voice.” Mankiewicz, or Mank to those who know him, is cynically surprised to see the “muckraker” express a care for the integrity of the written word, but as both men built their careers on the idea, this agreement marks the beginning of an increasingly combative relationship — and the seeding of what would one day become Mank’s script for a little film called Citizen Kane (1941).
Fincher’s latest, written by his late father Jack Fincher, is less about the making of Orson Welles’ masterpiece than it is about the changing of a man and the industry he calls home. Mank moves back and forth across a decade, grounded in a late 30s desert retreat where a recuperating Mank, left mostly immobile after a car accident, has been sequestered by Welles (Tom Burke) to write the script that would become Citizen Kane. His two months there alongside a secretary (Lily Collins) and a nurse (Monika Gossman) are alternated with flashbacks showing him at the height of his Hollywood success… and the fall that followed. It was a fall of his own choosing, as Mank’s cynicism towards “the hand that feeds him” leads him to take alcohol-fueled bites again and again until they cut off the trough.
It’s also less about that redemption, though, than it might seem. Mank spends most of his time here as an already enlightened man, and instead it’s his journey in the shadow of Welles and the Hollywood system that the two Finchers bring to the screen so eloquently. He wins few allies along the way, but those interactions — with the wunderkind filmmaker given carte blanche by RKO Studios, corporate-minded studio heads like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), his more publicly palatable brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Hearst’s ingenue girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) with whom he forms an affectionate but platonic relationship — paint an engrossing portrait of a man finally choosing to stand in the sunlight.
Mank’s story parallels social upheavals across the land as the Great Depression ravages the economy and California’s governor race heats up. Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye in a brief cameo) is running to improve things for the little people while his GOP opponent is heavily backed by some of the biggest people in the state. Familiar cries of “socialism!” fill the air as those at the top with money and power shout down and befuddle those beneath them, and Mank grows visibly weary.
“If you keep telling people something untrue, loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it,” says Mank, paraphrasing Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, and that sad observation continues to ring far too true. His swank and disinterested fellow partygoers ignore him, just as they ignore and dismiss talk of Hitler’s rising power overseas, and conclude only that “You don’t turn your back on a market as big as Germany.” Jack Fincher’s script gives these Hollywood bigwigs plenty of juicy lines including some that Howard’s Mayer tears through with increasing befuddlement and rage. “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory,” says Mayer to the brothers Mankiewicz. “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies.” Today’s studios haven’t looked back since.
Fincher’s choice to bring the film to the screen in black & white — reportedly the reason it took so long to find a studio willing to fund it — results in a beautifully captured world of old Hollywood glitz, glamor, and shadows. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt finds richness in the details capturing everything from the fast-moving writers rooms to the opulence of Hearst’s grand estate. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross reunite with Fincher for the score, and they adapt their stylings well to the period creating compositions that help bring moments both dour and jazzy to life.
While Mank‘s time-hopping narrative emulates that of Citizen Kane — an aspect of the older film’s script that someone attempts to criticize here as jumbled and confusing — Fincher keeps his stylistic flourishes to a minimum. We’re given the occasional visual nod, and time period changes are identified with on-screen text lifted from the script page, but the film is mostly a dialogue heavy watch. Thankfully, Fincher’s dialogue is sharply entertaining and effortlessly holds sway whether taking flight as soul searching monologues or screwball banter.
The latter is found frequently in Mank’s conversations with Marion (Seyfried) making it clear to see the draw that each feels toward the other, but they also share an affection that marks few other relationships in the writer’s life. His wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) allows these platonic friendships as she herself has come to enjoy something similar with her husband, and these two aren’t alone. The film features no big outbursts or proclamations of love, but it’s visible all the same in Mank’s quietly impassioned interactions with his brother, the women helping him recover, old friends begging for scraps, and more. “I’m washed up,” says Mank to his brother after being berated by Joseph for baiting Hearst with the script, “have been for years.” “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” comes the reply, and while it’s a non-controversial take on Citizen Kane‘s soon to be sterling reputation, it’s a much-needed exchange between brothers at odds.
Mank is an appreciation of writers, both Mankiewicz and Fincher included, who take the time and effort to craft and respect the words. It’s witty, sad, and enlightening for those who see Citizen Kane purely as a Welles joint, and what it lacks in money shots or big bombast it more than makes up for with warmth and integrity. “Who was that again?” asks someone already disinterested in the answer. “Just a writer,” comes the reply. For Mank — and for Mank — that’s badge of honor enough.