David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ Rapturously Evokes 1930s Hollywood With Visual Mastery

David Fincher’s “Mank” is a writer’s movie. Rarely has a film honed in so acutely on the very nature of that particular species. Visually it is a technical marvel that not only celebrates an era, but virtually travels back into it. Its sound design and cinematography are a literal re-creation of 1930s cinema, but the heart of this absorbing work is how legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz navigated the times. For the obsessive cinephile the appeal lies in someone finally telling the story onscreen of the writer known as “Mank,” who still inspires intense discussions over the true authorship of that great classic, “Citizen Kane.” Yet Gary Oldman’s performance taps into something more special because he is channeling a personality whose only true shield is wit.

The film opens in the early ‘40s as Mank (Oldman) enters a “dry” facility in the California desert after a drunken car crash. Not only is the seemingly washed out writer expected to sober up, he also has a deadline to meet. Mank has been hired by 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to pen his feature film debut. It is the writers’ greatest and most dangerous task to date considering the material is inspired by the life of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank knows the story intimately and we flash back into the 1930s when he was a constant presence at Hearst’s lavish estate at San Simeon. It was the Hollywood Golden Age, when Mank and a gang of fellow journalists journeyed to Los Angeles to make big money writing movies. Mank himself embodied the excesses and idealism of the Great Depression-era dream shop. He drinks hard, befriends Hearst’s would-be starlet lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and gambles to the point of drowning in studio debt. However, few can resist his dry wit and jovial attitude, including studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). But is Mank a literary force or a mere court jester? It’s a question that comes to the fore when he gets passionately involved in a California governor’s race where words like “socialism” can spark verbal brawls.

In terms of craft “Mank” is one of the year’s most sensuous pleasures. Fincher is above all an elegant stylist, whether in a brainy thriller like “Zodiac” or in capturing the rise of the Facebook age with his masterful “The Social Network.” Not content with merely telling Mank’s story, Fincher wants to preserve it with the feel of his era’s media. The effect is a hybrid dreamscape. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shoots in a digital black and white later adjusted to attempt the texture of a ‘30s movie. The sound is mono, and the dialogue has the crackling warmth of a vintage film. Even Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross virtually disappear in their music score, reportedly made with period instruments and devoid of any hint of Ross and the Nine Inch Nails singer’s trademark electronics. A moment where Mank and Davies stroll through the Hearst Castle’s zoo and gardens is so meticulously conjured that for a moment the mind could be tricked into believing it’s a movie from 1939. There is a sense of aura in “Mank” that makes one thankful Netflix allows a director like Fincher to experiment in ways more traditional studios might not have allowed. For Fincher this is a true passion project. The screenplay was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, who was a journalist and obviously has a real love and understanding of Mank’s profession.

Beneath the layers of exotic post-production is a deeper essence to this movie. Some critics have decried its lack of “meaning.” Much of Mankiewicz’s posthumous fame rests on the lingering debate over who truly must be granted authorship for “Citizen Kane” and passages from the movie touch on the subject. Some feel taken out of critic Pauline Kael’s controversial but essential essay “Raising Kane,” which forever defined the ongoing discussion. Mank is the one dictating pages to assistant and witness Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), while Welles with his iconic genius and charm sends communiques or makes phone calls, his ego palpable over the speaker. And Welles is never shown associating with Hearst (played with a subtle sense of power and wealth by Charles Dance) while it is Mank who is ever present at film sets where the tycoon keeps a close eye on his girl, or sits among Hearst’s court at San Simeon, joking and drinking. 

What “Mank” can truly be said to focus on is the relationship of the writer to the world. Gary Oldman carries the film, as he has so many times playing historical rebels and misfits, by making Mank both likeable and in constant conflict. He’s a natural critic who can’t help himself and has to be the iconoclast in every situation. When Mayer cynically asks MGM workers to cut their salaries in half due to the Depression he snickers. At San Simeon he enjoys flustering Hearst’s guests by explaining to them the difference between socialism and communism. Yet he depends on the very capitalist studio system to put a roof over his head, as well as the heads of the fellow journalists who he brings along. Readers of the Kael essay will delight in Fincher including a close-up of Mank’s famous telegram to Ben Hecht (who would write classics like “Scarface”) announcing, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots.” Amid the glitz and glamour he can never shake the journalist out of himself. Oldman will surely receive an Oscar nomination for playing Mank as a slurring but active wit with a brain that never sleeps.

Drunk, gambling, and somehow being tolerated by a loving wife (Tuppence Middleton), Mank observes and partakes in the times. Fincher brilliantly uses the 1934 California gubernatorial race as a mirror reflection of own cultural battles. Author Upton Sinclair is running as a Bernie Sanders-style socialist and Mank supports him, both out of subdued idealism and professional solidarity. The tense verbal battles Mank engages in with colleagues and a very capitalist Mayer were no doubt going on earlier this year all over America. Even fake news becomes an issue when MGM starts bringing in actors to stage anti-Sinclair newsreels. But Mank is not a radical revolutionary. He just refuses to be a sheep. This is why Marion Davis, played with a cheerful attitude that hides real intelligence by Amanda Seyfried, likes his company almost like a refreshing escape. The great tragedy near the end is that Mank knows he must serve two masters if he wants to stay afloat. The powers that be pay the bills. Even Hearst finds him more amusing than dangerous, putting his arm around the rowdy wordsmith to share fables. When Mank completes the “Citizen Kane” screenplay it’s as if he’s poured all he has learned about power into its pages.

“Mank” celebrates cinema, the words that go into its making and a particular moment in American history. Like few films it features stars and power players, but zooms in on the writers who give them what to say. Herman J. Mankiewicz found success in the world’s great dream factory and was pulled apart by multiple forces. As played by Gary Oldman he becomes a flawed, puking knight swinging at the world with nothing but his pen. This is one of the year’s best films.

Mank” releases Nov. 13 in select cities and begins streaming Dec. 4 on Netflix.