David Fincher, he of the tight thrillers with highly stylized dialogue and stacked casts, has genuinely surprised me. When I hear he’s got a new one brewing I brace for an ultra-modern version of a Hitchcockian thriller. He took the origins of Facebook and made it feel like a stunner, made a serial killer into something fascinating, and stuck Daniel Craig into a sexual scene with an anorexic hacker and somehow made it gripping. The guy works well with his particular oeuvre and always leaves me guessing at what he does next. It should feel fitting that he’s now brought forth Mank, but instead it just feels bafflingly charming.
Using a script from his late father, Jack Fincher, David brings forth the story of Hermann “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and the journey towards Citizen Kane in 1930s Hollywood. Bringing to life many from the historic MGM studio, it’s a glaringly honest and brutal picture of capitalism gone awry and how media manipulation has brought us to the brink of national destruction. Figures like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) are given no quarter, and even moments show Orson Welles (Tom Burke) as a more complicated figure than the overweight genius we thought of him by the time of his death. Hell, even Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is set in a different light than most would portray her in other documentations.
It’s fitting that the film’s true star is relegated to a cameo. Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye the Science Guy), author of The Jungle and high-profile political activist, is constantly in the background of the film to serve as a sacrificial lamb to the agendas of Mayer and Hearst. It’s no secret that Louis B. Mayer was a monster, hustling his employees into pay cuts and excessive hours while publicly portraying anyone that tried to help them as a “socialist Bolshevik.” Perhaps the greatest bit of thinly veiled hatred contained in Citizen Kane is the open detestment of William Randolph Hearst, portrayed here in ghoulish makeup and looking like Karloff’s Mummy. No stones are left unturned, from the decisions that led to the legendary script being written to the fact that “Rosebud” was reportedly an nickname Hearst used for Davies genitalia. Mankiewicz didn’t even bother to try hiding his hate, led to this point after losing friends and livelihood over the defeat of Sinclair by Merriam in the 1934 election (Shelly Metcalf famously killed himself after directing highly racist and illicit smear campaign films against Sinclair for Mayer and Hearst). The snappy dialogue and clever visual tricks aren’t enough to hide Fincher’s view that we’re still in this fight today, with wealthy capitalists trying to use all their means to convince us to hand them just a little bit more and to paint anyone fighting for the people as a Communist (or a socialist, or a Bolshevik, or any other slanderous name that tickles their fancy).
Aside from the politics strewn throughout Mank it manages to be a lot of fun. The script is designed to structurally resemble Citizen Kane and Fincher shot it all as a Golden Age Hollywood film, beautiful in black and white and lit/blocked to look more like Welles than any of his own previous films. Car scenes are blatantly two people sitting still with background projected behind them, scenes in darkness portrayed with “day for night” lighting, and the makeup is just to die for (Amanda Seyfriend looks incredible, there’s no other way to say it). There came a point where I reached for my bag of imaginary Oscars and began just hucking them at the screen, much to the detriment of my poor girlfriend whose television might have been destroyed by my elated behavior.
One of those Oscars I imagined myself hucking at the screen was definitely the award for Best Score. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been collaborating with David Fincher for a decade at this point, dark electronics built from their Nine Inch Nails personas reimagined as beautiful pieces of music for ultra-modern movies. For Mank they decided, “Ah, to hell with it,” and created a wonderful 52-track album full of songs right out of the 30s and my heart just sang along. Heavy drums, saxophones, big bold brass, it’s so goddamned fun.
And at the end of the day that’s what Mank is – fun. It’s achingly sincere and depressingly relevant in the way it spends over two hours shouting, “Look how little we’ve changed, how we screw ourselves over for rich people, and how bad it sucks!” Over all of that, though, is the story of a clever alcoholic who never properly dealt with his depression and still managed to be the apple of everyone’s eye because he’s so damn witty. It’s a wonderful piece of filmmaking and I hope it just wins all of the things from all of the groups in all of the categories. It deserves it.
Mank is now streaming on Netflix.