David Fincher’s Mank, a biopic of the 1930’s screenwriter, critic and activist Herman Mankiewicz is a sprawling, at times frantic, work that tests the limits of tone and mood, atmosphere and storytelling. In fact, it’s a bit like a Mankiewicz script.
The film reflects the work of the man himself thanks in large part to its swank, alluring, black-and-white period details. It’s about how Mank (Gary Oldman) wrote the script for Citizen Kane, the 1941 film that is often cited as the greatest movie ever made.
The movie finds Mank in the middle of nowhere, on a tight deadline to finish Kane for 20-something auteur Orson Welles (Tom Burke). He dictates the story, working with a secretary (Lily Collins), a live-in nurse (Monika Gossman), and a case of whiskey laced with Seconal. He has 90 days to finish the script – no, says Welles over the phone, make it 60.
While that’s happening, the movie jumps back and forth in time, revealing Manciewicz’s first-hand knowledge of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davis (Amanda Seyfried), who later inspire the script for Citizen Kane. After a few lavish dinner parties at Hearst’s castle, a private estate with zoos and mansions and fountains, and some back-lot-bustle at MGM Studios, where Louis B. Mayer is handing out pay cuts for his own gain, Mank decides to take a stand against Hollywood’s corporate greed.
Mank is no staid biopic – it’s a full-blown epic, a parade through Hollywood’s Golden Age, and its many eccentricities. Fincher re-creates the time period with Hollywood sheen, using his team of technicians to approximate the look of Citizen Kane. The film explodes with Kanesian visuals, expressing the emotional twists, turns and turmoil of Mank through deep focus, dutch angles, pillows of darkness and clouds of smoke. The film is a visual and magical feast as it swoops and spins through this bygone era.
The heart and the soul of Mank is a powerhouse performance by Oldman as Mankiewicz, quite possibly the role he was born to play, and the only actor who could pull off the acting and showmanship required for the part. Following his part in The Darkest Hour, Oldman is even better here. Without makeup, he seems more real, his drunken rants more, well, drunk. The dinner party sequences are enhanced by fantasy to capture the essence of the moment, especially when alcohol is involved.
It’s not often that writers like Herman Mankiewicz come along, and Mank gives the writer a biopic that’s as sharp and intoxicating as his work.