Gary Oldman stars in this movie about movie making; the story behind the writing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane
The titular Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz (here played by Oldman,) at one time the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood and winner of the Academy award for Best Original Screenplay 1941 for one of the most highly celebrated films of all time: Citizen Kane. Mank and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane’s director, star and co-writer) very publicly disagreed about the value of their respective contributions to the film leading to a feud about credits that had to be settled by the Screen Writers Guild. A passion project written by his father, Mank is David Fincher’s attempt to bring one of films forgotten figures to a wider audience. Whilst some creative liberties are taken with the story; the real Mank’s wit, wisdom and famous debauchery shine through.
Oldman, as ever, is a total chameleon. Whilst Fincher eschewed any thought of having prosthetics as he worried it would affect his actors performance Oldman once again manages to complete transform himself. In fact whilst sitting down to watch this movie I found myself worrying, as I have done before, that I don’t think I have any idea of what the real Gary Oldman actually looks or sounds like! The Mank he brings to the screen is wry and sarcastic, levelling dinner parties with his witty observations and incredible drunkenness, he frequently complains that he finds himself to be the ”smartest person in the room.” He’s a nuanced character with the talent to match his massive ego and a set of firm moral principles hidden beneath his self destructive bravado. That Mank is someone the audience can aspire to be like despite often acting like a total arse is testament to Oldman’s skill and charm.
In a clever bit of mimicry of Citizen Kane, Mank’s narrative is non-linear and jumps around between several years in the 1930s and early 40s. At its opening we see a washed up Mank sequestered away to a remote California ranch with his assistant Rita (Lily Collins).Up and coming hotshot Orson Welles has tapped him to write his debut film, and gives him 60 days to detox from alcohol and get the screenplay done. Through a series of flashbacks we see Mank’s inspiration for the film in his relationship with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (played by a typically intimidating Charles Dance) and Heart’s mistress, megastar actress Marion Davies (a luminous Amanda Seyfried). We also learn how Mank came to fall out of favour, as his extreme drunkenness and outspoken political affiliations alienate him from his friends and get him fired by his studio boss.
It’s a complicated story in which Orson Welles actually plays very little part until the very end. Rather than just the writing of Citizen Kane, Mank explores themes of writers owning their own work (the real Mankiewicz worked on 95 films but was credited as writer on very few of them,) the gaudy excess of the Hollywood elite during the great depression, and even the oddly pertinent notion of fake news media in its subplot about the election race for California governor. Whilst it all made me very curious to go home and research the real figures after the film was over, I found its listless pace a little unengaging story wise. Mank feels like a film made for film lovers and not casual ones at that. Whilst it’s central relationships are enjoyable and easy enough to understand I did worry that Mank relies on its audience having an in depth prior knowledge of Citizen Kane and indeed the many colourful Hollywood figures of the time in order to fully grasp it’s brilliance. Whilst it’s a wonderful thing that Netflix have taken on the financing and distribution of such a film, I worry that it will sit alongside such films as Alfonso Cuarón’s equally beautiful Roma, in parts of the catalogue left unwatched by the masses.
But, if you are a film lover, oh what treats await. Whilst it has released straight to Netflix I was fortunate enough to see Mank on the big screen at my favourite local indie the Prince Charles Cinema. And this is a film that deserves to be seen on a big screen. Shot in 8K and directly in black and white Fincher has then purposefully distressed the film in order for it to look like a period piece. There are scratches, pops and crackles and even reel change circles to make it look authentic whilst the clever cinematography makes it a very beautiful thing to look at. It uses classic old school Hollywood transitions, with Mank often delivering a ‘mic drop’ quip before the screen artfully fades out and cuts to another time. The actors have all been carefully trained to speak with period typical accents and the styling, costumes and production design are all impeccable – the ranch we see Oldman writing in at the start of the film is the actual ranch that the real Mank was sent away to write at – it’s been left unchanged to this day. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, usually renowned for their epic synth heavy soundtracks have scored Mank exclusively on period typical instruments and using vintage microphones. And the whole film is in mono – honestly who does that – giving it a gloriously warm sound. The fastidiously technical Fincher said he wanted Mank to look and sound like an old film that had just been unearthed from the archives and the amount of detailed work that has gone into achieving exactly this is just astounding.
So, whilst I can’t see Mank being a hit movie for the masses I think it’s very likely to appear on a lot of nominations lists come awards season. Its vision, technical wizardry and fantastic central performance make it a decent watch for the most ardent old Hollywood lovers and a very curious indicator of what may be to come from David Fincher’s ongoing partnership with Netflix.
Mank is streaming globally on Netflix now and out for a limited theatrical release.