Mank is David Fincher’s latest movie about writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and the development of the 1941 movie Citizen Kane.
RKO Pictures had given the theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles full control to develop a movie of his own with no studio interference. The result was one of the most acclaimed films in history. Yet while Welles was lauded for his incredible work on the film, it was screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz who wrote the screenplay.
Mank explores Mankiewicz’s troubled behaviour in the 1930s. It uses a Citizen Kane flashback structure to tell a picaresque tale of the writer and those around him.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
The film is a project David Fincher has been wanting to make for decades. His late father Jack Fincher wrote the script in the 1990s but only now, with creative freedom at Netflix has the film found a home.
Gary Oldman gives a wonderful performance as the writer, blessed with a sarcastic wit and cursed with alcohol dependency. His exuberance in the flashbacks contrasts nicely with the physically weaker figure sent to a remote ranch in the Mojave desert to work on the script. Oldman is the emotional centre of the film, sympathetic when speaking out about perceived injustices in politics and the movie studios.
Amanda Seyfried glows as Marion Davies, the movie starlet and girlfriend of Hearst. She is only in a few scenes but you can’t take your eyes off her. Her worldly-wise character nicely opposes the stereotype of the dumb blonde movie star. Lily Collins is restrained but commanding as Rita Alexander, brought in to take Mank’s dictation of the script. Other performers including Tom Burke as Orson Welles, and Tuppence Middleton as Sara Mankiewicz and all are magnetic to watch.
Charles Dance plays William Randolph Hearst, the millionaire mogul that inspired Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ movie. Mank moved in social circles that gave him access to Hearst. This experience fed his screenplay. Dance brings a quiet authority to the role and excels in his final scene as he calmly teaches the drunk Mank a lesson.
The film is shot in gorgeous monochrome by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Manhunter). It is fun for older movie fans to see that from the opening frames Fincher is recreating the classic look of films from the era.
DEPTH OF FIELD
The early scene at the ranch uses the depth of field extremely well – where all characters in the frame are in focus. Welles used windows, doors and mirrors to frame characters and used low angle shots which reveal huge ceilings. Citizen Kane experimented with narrative and with the possibilities of film as a medium. It’s fascinating to see Fincher pay homage to this.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
The production team have added imperfections to the image, as well as the soundtrack, to replicate the kind of quality you would see in an old film. Fincher even uses reel change markers at the top right of the screen every fifteen minutes. You may recall the dots older prints of movies. They were prompts for projectionists to change film reels back in the day. Fincher’s long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross created the soundtrack using only instruments that were in existence in the 1940’s.
This control over the medium is something Fincher is known for and it is fascinating to bear that in mind while watching how the fictional Citizen Kane came about, especially as Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland exercised similar control.
THE MIDDLE SECTION
As the film centres on Mank, it only gives a little to the array of characters around him. Despite being full of wonderful performances, the middle section wanders too much. One story involving Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) is very good yet is over too soon.
The poster for the movie is one of the best of the year. It suggests a wilder ride than the very controlled and deliberately-paced movie we get. But the film looks wonderful and is shot with painstaking attention to detail. It’s a very smart movie about movies, about writing, and about trying to claim back a little pride after a fall.
Some may hesitate at the prospect of watching a two-hour black and white movie about people they’ve barely heard of. Personally I admire Citizen Kane more than I like it, and I think I may eventually feel the same about Mank. Yet there is so much quality on display, movie fans should really give it a shot.
It is a love letter to films of the age and makes a good case for redressing the balance and giving Mank his due for playing such a crucial role in a classic movie.
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