With silky smooth photography to win over Oscar voters and a well honed script vividly brought to life by an on-form Gary Oldman, Mank is filmmaking as a time machine.
In the annals of cinematic history, one film frequently towers above all others when it comes to naming the ‘greatest’. No, not Daddy’s Home 2, but 1941’s Citizen Kane, directed, produced, performed and written by Orson Welles. The film won an Oscar for Original Screenplay which was shared by Welles and Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz after an exhausting writing process, the authorship of which is still fiercely debated. Mank, directed by David Fincher, attempts to shine a light on this.
It has been six years since Fincher’s last film, Gone Girl, and the acclaimed filmmaker has returned by bringing out a screenplay from development hell. The said screenplay was penned by Fincher’s father, Jack, back in the 1990s. Jack Fincher died in 2003 and the film’s production was stalled until his son revived it, casting Gary Oldman as Mank and aiming to make it in the style of 1940s’ Hollywood.
The reverence towards Citizen Kane is split into two parts: the astonishing, novel technical techniques in its cinematography and editing and its intricate, non-linear structure. These two aspects are drawn upon by Fincher, who juggles his own narrative of flashbacks set in the 1930s whilst also providing the airtight precision behind the camera one would come to expect from the (almost irritatingly) surgical director. Much has been commented on his hundred-take scenes during production, but the finished result shows an ensemble that truly inhabit their roles.
Gary Oldman leads the way as the eponym, alternating between the charming and successful man of the early 1930s to the bed-bound alcoholic in the later part of the decade with ease. If his Churchill is fierce and vocal, and his George Smiley subtle and laconic, then Oldman’s performance here is middle ground territory, further establishing him as one of Britain’s greatest talents. Of note in the supporting cast is Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and an imposingly authoritative Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul who inspired Welles’ character in Citizen Kane. Film lovers will also find much to gush over through the depictions of such Hollywood royalty as Joseph Mankiewicz, David O Selznick, Louis B Mayer and Welles himself, vividly brought to life for a few scenes by Tom Burke.
Shot in marvellous monochrome, Mank follows hot on the heels of Cold War, Roma and The Lighthouse as another example of how rich, black and white photography can still have a prominent place in 21st century film production. With exemplary usage of Venetian blinds, slow fade outs and cue marks, Fincher has concocted a delightful time capsule to a by-gone Hollywood era. Of course, with these types of films-about-filmmaking, there is a worry of catering to the critics and scholars rather than the general audiences but Mank is also tightly scripted, impeccably designed and sporadically amusing enough to still be both accessible and informative to those who haven’t seen Citizen Kane or are unfamiliar with Golden Age Hollywood.
There is an unintentional layer to the film too. In the flashback sequences set in the Great Depression, producers and studios rack their brains trying to discover a new way to get audiences back spending in the cinema and to save the film industry. One such discussion sees workers at MGM taking salary cuts in order to make funding easier. In the current climate, the scene speaks even louder, though the irony of platforming this type of film on Netflix is further observed. If Quentin Tarantino’s ode to filmmaking in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ran an autobiographical thread about a man struggling to adapt to a changing industry, then Mank runs a similar course that mirrors Fincher’s own style in its central character: a man who hisses at time constraints and the lack of creative freedom under the studio system, yet can still flourish.
Despite not fully delivering an answer on who is the true script mastermind of Kane, or even the creative split between the two writers, Mank is still a refreshing film; one that beautifully recalls the glory days of film production and the pioneering spirit of Hollywood that has slowly waned in recent decades. And if it encourages more people to seek out Citizen Kane, then power to Fincher.
Mank, directed by David Fincher, is distributed in the UK via Netflix and is available to stream now. Certificate 12A.