MANK is David Fincher’s lavish and crisply-captured portrait of Old Hollywood and the genesis of CITIZEN KANE. Although perhaps more a story of Hollywood plutocracy than a biopic, the film buffs the legend of Herman J. Mankiewicz whilst also having some bite and bile for the inequities of Hollywood and the monied interests it serves even today.
Gary Oldman is on quick-talking form as Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Orson Welles’s seminal 1941 picture CITIZEN KANE. Famously, Mankiewicz based Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst (played here with typically aloof gravitas by Charles Dance), and Mankiewicz’s – and the broader Hollywood elite of the time’s – relationship to Hearst and his wealthy ilk is what MANK focuses primarily upon. Outside Oldman’s role, the standout performance lies with Amanda Seyfriend, who imbues Marion Davies with more smarts and savvy than Mankiewicz did her avatar in CITIZEN KANE.
Fincher – directing from his late father’s script – invents a scenario whereby a convalescing Mankiewicz is completing the CITIZEN KANE script from a remote ranch under a tight deadline and limited alcohol supply. From here the film frequently jumps to flashbacks of Mankiewicz’s time in the Hollywood system, and Mankiewicz’s politics and the California gubernatorial election of 1934 play a large role in these segments.
In examining Hollywood’s attitudes at the time towards Upton Sinclair and the End Poverty in California movement – and the callous financial dishonesty Herman observes towards studio workers – signposts Herman’s collision course with Hearst. Although it is always tempting, especially in 2020, to view everything through a contemporary lens, it is hard to ignore the current resonance in the naive discussions Hearst’s inner circle have around Hitler’s rise in Germany (“He won’t be around for long!”) and the differences between communism and socialism. Coupled with the absurd rallies held in favour of Republican Frank Merriam and the lip-service characters pay to End Poverty in California, the temptation to draw parallels with the modern GOP and media landscape against contemporary activist concerns is almost overwhelming. As a result, Fincher casts Herman – a former journalist – as speaking truth to power with the script for CITIZEN KANE. Here, the elite has forfeited their morals for power and favour; attempts to cast opponents as ideological insurrectionists are nothing more than tilting at windmills at best, and disingenuous at worst.
If MANK reserves a cynical edge for Hollywood’s power structures, it has much more reverence for the look and sound of Old Hollywood. It’s a strange alchemy Fincher has put together; filmed on digital but with efforts taken to recreate the imperfections of physical film and nods to Welles’s style (a montage focused upon the election counting is a particular highlight). Still, Fincher and Erik Messerschmidt’s hyper-crisp photography never quite feels of the period, but nor does it feel like pointless artifice. In particular, it would be odd of MANK’s Herman – a fast-talking, wise-cracking, acerbic and hard-drinking wit – to exist within any other aesthetic.
The film’s pending Netflix release adds some interest to the film’s minor nods to the old idea of studio ‘identity’, something that arguably only persists with Disney and some niche genre houses. With MANK, Netflix seems to continue to forge its path of giving storied creatives – Scorsese, Cuarón, Kaufman – lavish budgets to pursue passion projects, with striking if extremely variable results.
The particular attention to look and feel may, over time, position MANK as more of a cinematic curio in Fincher’s filmography. However, there is enough bite and edge here to give the film some degree of insight beyond the origin of one of cinema’s most significant works.