There are a few archetypes that persist throughout film history: the down-and-out career man with a conscience, the corruption at the hearts of institutions we hold dear, and Hollywood held up as a shining example of Americana. The films of the 1930s and ’40s exemplified these American myths, and decades following the fall of Tinseltown’s all-powerful studio system, David Fincher, one of Hollywood’s most peculiar and particular latter-day auteurs, elevates these tropes into the brilliant and blistering Mank, an iconoclastic biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-screenwriter of Citizen Kane (1941).
The film revolves around Mankiewicz’s (Mank’s) writing of the Orson Welles-directed canonical landmark. Far from the smoke-filled writers’ rooms of Los Angeles, the embattled screenwriter has been sequestered in a desert ranch, healing a broken leg away from the social scene of the studio system and the constant beckoning of his vices, namely incurring massive gambling debts, drinking until he passes out, and running his mouth. Along with his nurse (Leven Rambin), a whip-smart secretary (Lily Collins), and a 60-day deadline, Mank faces his Hollywood demons by bringing them to the screen, drawing inspiration for the script from his real-life nemeses MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and newspaper scion William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). We flash between Mank’s less-than-glamorous retreat and the eerie, Fabergé egg-like interiors of San Simeon’s Hearst Castle, where years ago, Mank lurked in the shadows as a thorn in the bitter, fading Hearst’s side and as a confidant to Hearst’s long-time mistress, the aspiring starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). As Mank’s deadline approaches, he further brings his own Tinseltown trauma into the Kane script, still haunted by the small ways in which he enabled Hearst and Mayer’s corrosive influence upon California’s 1934 gubernatorial election during the height of the Great Depression.
As the acid-tongued yet crestfallen Mank, Gary Oldman is a wonder: he brings as much weight to snarky one-liners as he does the subtle expressions of mourning and malaise that show his great disappointment in the industry he once knew. By the film’s denouement, Oldman portrays Mank’s fierce intelligence and barely-contained anger at Hollywood and himself in a way that only highlights his tragic story. Serving as his confidants, Tuppence Middleton and Tom Pelphrey, as Mank’s long suffering wife Sara and his screenwriter brother Joseph, bring a sense of balance to Oldman’s larger-than-life performance, with equal parts affection and frustration at Mank’s constant antics. Seyfried sparkles as Davies, a role that could have easily fallen into stereotype and melodrama in lesser hands. Instead, Seyfried has all the spark and wit of a 1940s heroine, and she delivers much needed empathy in contrast to both the drunken, fallen Mank and the bitter Hearst. The only weak link in the film’s array of performances is Tom Burke’s portrayal of Orson Welles, a largely inconsequential role which, unfortunately—but given the status of this movie giant, understandably—never transcends its air of weak caricature.
Fincher’s understanding, but not reverence, for Hollywood history and filmmaking in general is the key to Mank’s resounding success. He cleverly mines Citizen Kane for parts, including the original film’s flashback structure. The shifting timeline manages to humanize the elusive Mank by tying different parts of his own life directly to the script at hand. It also makes clear that, as much as his Citizen Kane script is a critique of Hearst, it is a critique of himself as well, knowing himself to be as easily seduced by notions of power and influence as anyone else in that town. Mank’s Los Angeles setting is constructed through beautiful and considered details that reflect the plot’s entertaining yet maze-like denseness. Fincher’s recent work, such as Gone Girl (2014) and The Social Network (2010) had a minimalist, broken-in look that complemented his cutthroat procedural style and tied his plots to real-world conflict. Fincher swaps this aesthetic out for a surreal, dream-like black-and-white palette with stark, dramatic lighting and fade-outs of old melodrama masterpieces, also evoking something of the out-of-time strangeness of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). The elaborate sets from Hearst Castle to the MGM lot are captured impeccably by the low camera angles and silhouettes that serve as clever homages to Welles’s cinematic sorcery.
Mank can be summed up by a single image: captured in a swirling close-up shot, Mank is in drunken disbelief about the election of Frank Merriam to the California state government, signaling the defeat of socialist journalist Upton Sinclair and reaffirming Mayer’s miserly hold over Southern California’s economy. It’s a small moment that illustrates the David and Goliath tale transported to Hollywood at the heart of Mank. Yes, it is a story of movie history, but it is also a look into the outsized influence and self-serving motives of the entertainment industry that persist today, be that the abuse exposed by the #MeToo movement or the emerging monopolies of Disney and streaming services alike. Fincher’s film is a pitch-black and twisted treatise against Hollywood’s ills and the Mayer types, much like Mank’s original Citizen Kane script was itself a glimpse into the empty lives of the rich and powerful. Fincher’s Mank proves that courageous, subtle, and smart filmmaking about Hollywood is still possible—and still able to expose the rot at the core of the industry.