Lovers of Old Hollywood rejoice. David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) has served up a beautiful black-and-white ode to Tinsel Town’s power players and their behind the scenes machinations. Set in the 1930’s and 40s, Mank is the story of the writing of Orson Welles’ debut masterwork Citizen Kane by the alcoholic, bedridden hack Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). His friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, “The Crown”, “Game of Thrones”) and his partner Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed, Mamma Mia) was the basis for the film and their relationship is the backbone of Fincher’s. And as Mankiewicz writes from his bed out in the desert, he reflects back on the past decade of his life when he was a frequent guest at Hearst mansion, tolerated for years despite his loutish behavior because he was so amusing.
His memories also take him inside the studio system where he battles with MGM head Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard, “Manhunt”) and trades barbs with his head of production, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). It does help if you’re a cinephile, as a who’s who of that era parade through the script: John Houseman, David O. Selznick, George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, Joe Von Sternberg, and many more. But the most interesting character of all is Marion Davies. Mankiewicz and she were actually quite close and despite the version of her that people saw in Citizen Kane and believed to be true, she was smart and funny and talented. Some of the best scenes in the movie are with her.
The film really works because of two things –the script by Jack Fincher, the director’s father, and Amanda Seyfried’s Marion. Sure, Gary Oldman is his usually great self, but after a while you get accustomed to his drunken wit. It’s the script that employs a kind of language more familiar in screw-ball comedies of the era that makes Mank sing. The film is shot in a 40s era style that works very well for the story, too. Orson Welles (Tom Burke, Souvenir) only shows up a couple of times to urge Mankiewicz on and later to insult him when he reneges on his agreement to do the script uncredited. It’s an engaging film and I expect it to be on a bunch of “best of lists” next year, even if most of us saw it on a small screen rather than in the theater it deserved.
It’s streaming now on Netflix.