Mank may not feel like a David Fincher film, but as with his previous impressive detours, The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it proves that he’s a master of more than just thrillers.
Written nearly 30 years ago by his father, Jack — then delayed until the director could find a studio that would support his commitment to filming in B&W — this entertaining, insightful look at Herman Mankiewicz’s tumultuous journey to pen Citizen Kane offers a tantalizing glimpse into the mind of a great screenwriter whose artistic gifts were intertwined with his humanism. But while many of his good deeds took traditional philanthropic forms, when mixed with his predilections for alcohol and gambling, they could take the form of scathing yet justified retribution for those he felt deserved such reckonings.
All of these angles are represented in Mank, bathed in beautiful B&W cinematography — complete with digitally added “cigarette burns” on the would-be celluloid — to give it the appearance of a Depression-era product. Portraying the volatile genius, Gary Oldman delivers the most well-rounded performance of his illustrious career, hitting the character’s wide range of seriocomic and tragic qualities with veteran ease.
Hopping between a convalescing Mank laboring on his iconic screenplay at a Victorville ranch an hour or so outside LA and key moments from the eventful decade that landed him in his current predicament, the Finchers craft an impressive flow that keenly balances the demons driving their hero and the improbable enduring wit that gives his life meaning.
The filmmakers playfully incorporate such historical Hollywood figures as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, Full Metal Jacket), William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, Dracula Untold), Mank’s future Oscar-winning brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey, Netflix’s “Ozark”), John Houseman (Sam Troughton, Peterloo), and — naturally — Orson Welles (Tom Burke, The Souvenir) to great effect, producing a true ensemble vibe that’s elevated by the characters’ insider access to movie lots and location shoots.
Captivating as Mank’s dealings with these powerful, famous men are, it’s in the company of women where he meets his matches and fully realizes his potential as a human. Be it his wife, “Poor” Sara (Tuppence Middleton, Downton Abbey), British stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), or Hearst’s young wife, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, ably handling her most complex role to date), Mank comes off as both an early feminist and the rare man capable of a purely platonic relationship with the opposite sex.
Combined with its (sadly unintentional) modern political overtones, Mank hits the sweet spot between Hollywood nostalgia and contemporary social justice, making it a special work that transcends time and place.
Available to stream via Netflix starting Dec. 4