Those fascinated by the Golden Age of Hollywood and “Citizen Kane” will find in David Fincher’s “Mank” a fascinating treasure of trove of juicy anecdotes, behind-the-scenes glimpses and fascinating conjecture about the studio system and the making of a revolutionary work of art that still impacts the medium
80 years after its release.
As for everyone else ... well, you’ll likely be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
With such a narrow audience, it’s a miracle the film was even made. That it was speaks to Fincher’s influence and Netflix’s desire to keep him in the fold.
Working from a script from his father, Jack, the director has created a meticulously rendered movie that not only mirrors “Kane’s” aesthetic and techniques, but also contains a soundtrack with a slight echo in an effort to replicate the experience of seeing the film in a movie palace circa 1941, much as Orson Welles’ masterpiece was first seen.
The filmmaker hasn’t let anything escape his OCD approach, and the movie is all the better for it.
At one point, ghost writer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) call’s Herman Mankiewicz’s (Gary Oldman) “Kane” script “a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans.”
While he may be describing the first draft of film history, he’s also referring to “Mank” itself, as Fincher adapts Welles’ approach in telling the story of the Boy Wonder’s most cantankerous collaborator, a writer bent on self-destruction, a man who never let a golden opportunity get in the way of his shooting himself in the foot.
While Victorville, Calif., where a bedridden Mankiewicz is recovering from an accident and dictating the script to his incredibly patient secretary is the main setting of the film, Fincher’s script shuttles back and forth through time.
We’re privy to the writer’s tenure at MGM, where we see him toiling on forgettable films under the tyrannical Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), arguing about politics with wunderkind Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and being ignored by producer David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore).
However, the key flashback is the 1930 chance meeting between Mankiewicz and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), which blossoms into an unexpected friendship that gains the writer entrance to the inner circle of Davies’ lover, media magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
The parties and excursions Mankiewicz attends allow him to rub shoulders with Charlie Chaplin, Norma Scherer and other members of the Hollywood elite, yet it’s the interactions he witnesses between Davies and Hearst that provide the seeds that ultimately blossom in the “Kane” screenplay.
The more you know about “Kane” and its backstory, the more you’ll appreciate Fincher’s meta approach.
Rear projection, overlapping dialogue, low-angle shots and dramatic lighting are all taken from Welles’ playbook, while jump cuts used to replicate the joining of reels are employed to make “Mank” look and feel as much like “Kane” as possible.
Unfortunately, this reflection goes too far. At the end of Welles’ film, the reporter who’s investigated Kane’s life states that, despite his efforts, he never really got to know the man.
The same can be said of Fincher’s subject. We never find out why Mankiewicz has a self-destructive bent, why his long-suffering wife (Tuppence Middleton) puts up with him or how his friendship with Davies developed. As a result, “Mank” is an incomplete portrait.
But if you’re a film buff, man, it sure is a lot of fun.
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