Laid up in bed and against the clock to finish the screenplay for Citizen Kane, washed-up screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) reminiscences on his fall from celebrity against the backdrop of a 1930s Hollywood struggling to survive the threat of the Great Depression and changing social attitudes.
Maybe it’s social upheaval in the US. Maybe it’s the wave of celebrity scandals that wash over news headlines every other week. Maybe it’s just fatigue with the modern world; whatever it is, Old Hollywood is very much in vogue right now.
Last year it was Quentin Tarantino’s self-indulgent love letter to 60s Hollywood, Once upon a Time in Hollywood. Netflix released an original mini-series, Hollywood, about the glam of the 50s. Meanwhile, director David Fincher’s own tinsel town project takes us back further, to the 30s and 40s, and the creation of Citizen Kane. The film is now lauded as an all-time great, and Mank gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the people that inspired the story of power, greed, and politics.
Mank has been a long time coming for Fincher. The script was initially written by Fincher’s father, Jack, in the late 90s before being shelved for more than 20 years. Fincher went on to make numerous streamlined political thrillers in the interim, making Mank feel like an even more significant departure from his norm. The film has the look and feel of a Baz Luhrmann epic, but rendered in black and white, and scored with sumptuous jazz, giving it the rich feel of a grand old Hollywood film. Fincher’s film is also a cinephile’s dream, with layered references to old stars of the screen. It’s clear that Fincher’s film knowledge is extensive, as is his love for the filmmaking; Mank is at its most energetic when we’re following high-powered film executives around a production lot in lengthy tracking shots and panoramas of outdoor scenes.
Fincher’s script skips freely between events throughout the 30s, touching on many of the vital cultural milestones of the decade including the effects of the Great Depression, the 1934 elections for the Governor of California, and World War Two. Events are jumbled through the hazy gaze of Gary Oldman’s alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank), giving the narrative a distorted, memory-driven feel. This feeling of disconnect between the character ‘living’ the narrative while events happen gives an inevitability to Mank’s fall from grace. However, Fincher’s script doesn’t quite marry this fate thread to a strong-willed protagonist, giving Mank a disjointed pace towards the end of the film.
Oldman is mercurial as Mank, a mix of fast-paced wit and alcoholic inertia which shifts and flows across flashbacks. But while Oldman is meant to be the heart of the film, it’s the supporting performance from Amanda Seyfried as Mank’s vivacious confidant, Marion Davies, that lights up Mank. She’s the antithesis of Mank’s cold charm. While he holds other characters – and indeed viewers – at arm’s length with asides and indifference, Seyfried bubbles with emotion. She’s also the perfect tonic to the stylised acting of the rest of the cast. Lily Collins is prim and proper as Mank’s English nurse; Charles Dance radiates coldness as media magnate W.R Hearst. When surrounded by so much caricature, Seyfried’s flapper girl energy and delivery is even more masterful.
Fincher is back after six years with another very good film. But while much of his storied back catalogue is heralded for its emotive political thrills, Mank hides its ability to confront the viewer behind a layer of glitz and artifice. The film is undoubtedly stylish and beautiful; but it obscures what could be a huge amount of power under its shiny surface.
Mank, for all opulence and intelligence as a testimony to Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, lacks the heart to pull it all together. 7/10.