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Netflix Review: Mank

December 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

David Fincher’s Mank, which is adapted from a screenplay that the director’s father Jack wrote back in the 1990s before he passed away, is an ambitious black and white drama about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane.

But despite how it might sound on paper, this gorgeously crafted Netflix production is far from a traditional biopic. Set in the Old Hollywood of the 1930s and early 1940s, Mank is instead more of a companion piece of sorts that is meant to mirror Citizen Kane, with its grand themes about obsession, ambition, artistic integrity and power dynamics.

The film begins in 1940, with the alcoholic Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is affectionately known as Mank to those around him, arriving at North Verde Ranch in the Mojave Desert to recover from a car accident that has left him bed-ridden.

Mankiewicz has been assigned a young typist, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), to help transcribe his words, and is writing a screenplay for “radio’s golden boy” Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The 24-year-old Welles has entered into a historic film deal with RKO Radio Pictures, being given full creative control over the project, and he has already ruffled feathers by hiring Mankiewicz to write the script. It’s worth noting that Welles himself is more of a bit player here, mostly appearing through phone calls with Mankiewicz to check in on his progress, before a charged final meeting between the two.

Through flashbacks to the 1930s, we see how Mankiewicz’s friendship turned feud with powerful businessman and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) directly inspired his sprawling script for Citizen Kane. The 1941 film is, of course, about the life of a fictional news magnate with political ambitions named Charles Foster Kane, a thinly veiled stand-in for Hearst himself, whose dying word “Rosebud” becomes the point of fixation for a young reporter. The other piece of the puzzle is silver screen star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who is close to Hearst, and becomes a friend to Mankiewicz as well.

The film also has a very engaging political subplot involving the 1934 California gubernatorial race between Republican candidate Frank Merriam and socialist author Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye, in a brief appearance), who is running as a Democrat. Mankiewicz’s refusal to back Merriam, who is being fiercely supported by Hearst and MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), leads to increased tensions with the studio, and this storyline provides further context to his falling out with Hearst.

While clearly rooted in fact, I’m also not entirely sure how much of this is creative fiction, and I imagine part of Fincher’s plan was to have viewers do their own research, similar to how audiences have spent decades searching for the real life similarities between William Randolph Hearst and Charles Foster Kane. When you start to realize that Mank is a bit of a puzzle box in this way, it becomes clearer how it slots into the rest of the director’s filmography as well.

An important thing to note about Mank is that, despite being sold this way, it’s not about the actual making of Citizen Kane. Well, not really, anyway. It’s about the writing of the film, sure, but more about Mankiewicz’s own ideals that he was trying to express through the screenplay, and how he came to be disillusioned by the entire studio system. If Rosebud was a MacGuffin in Citizen Kane, a plot element that provided the catalyst for the entire story yet was hardly the most significant thing about it, in some ways Citizen Kane itself is the MacGuffin in Mank.

While the meaning of Rosebud, (which either represents how lonely Kane was as a child or the last time he was ever truly happy, depending on how you choose to look at it), is revealed to us in the haunting final frame of Citizen Kane, the characters themselves never actually solve the mystery. It’s this elusive, enigmatic quality that has made Citizen Kane so widely dissected and discussed for all these years, and Mank has a bit of that quality as well.

Oldman delivers an electric performance as the outspoken Mankiewicz, with a drunken dinner party monologue near the end of the film serving as an incredible acting showcase for him. Seyfried also does magnificent work as Davies, whom Hearst is unsuccessfully trying to transition from silent comedies to dramatic talkies, imbuing her portrayal of the young star with warmth, humour and some whip-smart impulses. There are some magical scenes when it’s just the two of them conversing with each other, including a poignant nighttime walk on the grounds of Hearst’s sprawling San Simeon estate, with the dialogue sharp and their chemistry palpable.

The elder Fincher’s screenplay is a dense tome that features some crackling dialogue, and it’s been meticulously brought to life by the younger Fincher, who goes to painstaking lengths to authentically recreate the look and feel of an old film. The film features gorgeous black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, whose framing choices brilliantly evoke some of the iconic imagery from Welles’s film. Finally, Mank also boasts an exceptional classical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which was composed exclusively using instruments from the time period.

I thought the film was absorbing and brilliant on almost every technical level. And yet, over a week after watching Mank for the first time, I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it as a whole, and I remain curious about its accessibility beyond already devoted cinephiles. Perhaps this is how critics felt back in 1941 when first confronted with Citizen Kane. I don’t mean any of this as a slight against it. Fincher has crafted something completely singular and idiosyncratic, which is fitting for a film about the writing of what is considered by many to be among the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Mank is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

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