Dec 11, 2020 | LIFE | By Andrew Rodden | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
To be honest, I was not particularly thrilled to sit down on the couch and watch David Fincher’s newest Netflix film “Mank,” a movie about Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the co-writer — or main writer, as the film argues — of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” (1941). However, in “Mank” I was surprised to find a politically observant (and stylistically captivating) time warp back to the golden age of Hollywood.
Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, wrote the screenplay for this movie in the 90s, a script that depicts one of the more heated controversies to come out of Old Hollywood: who really wrote “Citizen Kane”? There is much debate regarding the extent of Orson Welles’s involvement with the writing of his masterpiece, but “Mank” soundly suggests the screenplay was Herman Mankiewicz’s, regardless of the shared writing credit with Welles.
“Mank” contextualizes this “who wrote what” drama with a focus on the life and career of Mankiewicz, whose friends called him Mank. The story progresses from his early years as a screenwriter for Paramount Studios and MGM Studios in 1930s Hollywood to his Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” which he wrote in 1940 in a countryside residence with a broken leg. Each moment of this decade is soaked in Mank’s alcoholism, the cause of his death in 1953, but Mank himself claims booze gave him the creative inspiration required to write.
Much like “Citizen Kane,” “Mank” focuses on the historical structures of power in Old Hollywood, and how linked the wealthy and powerful are with American political structures. “Citizen Kane,” after all, is partly based on the life and corruption of media baron William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance in this biopic.
“Mank” portrays a wealthy Hearst and MGM co-owner Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) using a smear campaign to manipulate the 1934 election for California governor between Upton Sinclair (cameoed by Bill Nye) and Frank Merriam. Spoiler alert: the propaganda against Sinclair and his pro-worker, socialist policies aided Merriam in his victory, a clear indication of the power wealthy elites hold over politics in the U.S.
Mankiewicz, himself a proponent of Sinclair, turns to his friend and Hearst’s lover, famed actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), to convince Hearst to end the anti-Sinclair campaign. Such conversations between Oldman’s Mank and Seyfried’s Davies delightfully meander through the woes and worries one might have in 1930s Hollywood, which are punctuated with a snazzy and jazzy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score. This big band jazz style of music was performed with instruments from the time period, a historical consistency which applies to the other stylistic components of “Mank.”
Fincher uses elements like black and white cinematography, period-authentic sound design and costuming to replicate the style of 30s and 40s Hollywood movies. Fincher’s meticulous attention to detail is mesmerizing, and his direction of brilliant performances from every cast member renders this movie an unsinkable technical Titanic. Expect nothing less from David Fincher.
Often, the fast-talking Hollywood style can be tough to follow, as the plot is complex and heavily referential to the history of the era, with the narrative jumping from one point in Mank’s life to another, beefed up with chunks of historical dialogue. Some might find this approach somewhat dry, so understand that “Mank” is a biopic featuring some heavy history of Old Hollywood. “Mank” is admittedly not as thrilling as Fincher’s previous movies, but its story and filmmaking is just as immersive as anything else he’s done.
Obviously, a trip to the theater would have been my preferred way to watch “Mank,” but by the looks of a recent decision to premiere the entire Warner Bros. 2021 lineup onto HBO Max, it’s looking like home viewing is here to stay, at least for a while. I was left on my couch with Netflix yet again, but “Mank” still looks and sounds beautiful regardless of what kind of couch you’re planted on. “Mank” is streaming on Netflix.