Mank has so much in its corner that it’s almost unfairly stacked. The film is a passion project for director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network), and was written by his late father Jack Fincher. The story takes a fictional look at screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz as he becomes involved in the creation of Citizen Kane, a film that will eventually be viewed as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. With Gary Oldman at the helm as the witty alcoholic writer and a clear vision in place, Fincher clearly knows what he wants to make and sets out to deliver a film that acts as the ultimate tribute to the classic era of the movie industry.
And for the most part, that works in Mank. From the very beginning with the antiquated opening credits, you are absolutely certain of what Fincher’s intentions are. He wants to present the story of Herman Mankiewicz as if it was a film made in the era in which the story’s events happened. And while the effort is so obvious that s sometimes borders on parody, there is no question that Fincher has the technical skill and acumen to make this feel shockingly authentic. At times, Mank feels like one of those movies in a movie, like Angels With Filthy Souls in Home Alone or Mant! in Matinee. It’s such a pastiche but it’s exceptionally well-executed and comes off as endearing.
But, the heightened aura of the whole picture gets shaky due to its lead performance. Gary Oldman as Mank is funny and sympathetic at times, but his choices are big and cartoonish during some crucial scenes. Granted, that does fit in with the somewhat overly stylized approach to the film’s entire world, but Oldman sometimes sacrifices relatable humanity for theatricality in scenes where the movie’s tone wants to be more straightforward. A drunken monologue at a dinner party is supposed to come off as tense, pathetic, but also powerful for Mankiewicz. However, Oldman’s choices take it to extremes that fit it squarely into that unfortunate arena of Oscar bait acting.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast comfortably slips into the exact rhythm Fincher is looking for in Mank. Amanda Seyfried understands her Marion Davies is less a truthful depiction of the actress and more of a legend’s riff on her persona. She’s quite fun in the role but never teeters into self-parody like Oldman sometimes does. Charles Dance is perfect casting as William Randolph Hearst, oozing menace and calculated power in just the tiniest of glances. The film’s greatest performance might lie in Arliss Howard who embodies the tyrannical spirit of MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer. Every scene with Mayer at the center of it is compelling, hilarious, and illuminating. If any actor in the film deserves awards recognition, it’s him.
However, Mank might end up surprising viewers who are looking for something more akin to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood when it comes to a movie about the moviemaking industry. While the story does have the creation of Citizen Kane at its center – also, Tom Burke as Orson Welles is utilized perfectly, weaving through the film like a wispy devil – it is not as focused on that facet of the narrative as one might believe. Instead, this is a story about the golden age of Holywood and the powers-that-be of the time. In that sense, the movie gets unapologetically political and even cynical when it comes to how these businesses were run. A scene where Louis B. Mayer tries to convince the MGM players to take a 50% cut in their salaries is one of the most poignant and darkly pointed scenes in the entire film.
With all this on the table, Mank actually comes around to be a tough film to recommend. For cinephiles, it is a must-see for its lavish production and candid appraisal of the movie industry of the time. Casual viewers will probably find it too esoteric and “off the rails” if they are just expecting to see a movie about the making of Citizen Kane. The filmmaking on display and the unabashed love for the world of movies are both absolutely intoxicating, but it is all orbiting around a central performance that keeps vacillating between earnest and outlandish. It is a relief that the rest of the supporting cast are all so much more consistent. Add to that a truly complex thematic spectrum and Mank is sure to be one of the best head-scratchers of the year. But, it is still a head-scratcher and one that we will probably need a lot more distance from to really gauge its efficacy.