INT. NORTHERN CALIFORNIA – OFFICE – DAY – 2020
Movie studios are struggling, going under even. We’re in the middle of a contentious election. Wait a minute, is this 2020 or 1934? It’s both.
In David Fincher’s new film, Mank, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is trying to pitch what would be referred to now as ‘elevated’ horror to Paramount Pictures in the mid-1930s, not the horror schlock that Universal puts out. “This is different, this is about something,” he says. But let’s fast-forward a bit.
It’s 1940 and Mank is being quarantined out in the desert to write and finish the screenplay for what would ultimately be Citizen Kane. He wobbles into the cottage at North Verde Ranch, broken-legged with a cane and a doctor in tow and a deadline of 60 days. “90 days,” pushes Mank. He’s gifted Rita Alexander (played by Lily Collins) to dictate the script as he rattles it off from bed. Collins is lovely here and evokes Audrey Hepburn is poise, presence and speech. He has a lockbox, of sorts, of hooch to eke him through the process. Doc’s word of advice? “Tell the story you know.” As Mank, Gary Oldman is an oddly uninteresting choice. His largely unconvincing drunk performance is however balanced by how good he is while writing and convalescing.
Heading back to the 30s, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard in a standout, scene-stealing performance) is all bluster and boorishness but paints a face of simpering sadness as he collects his MGM family of players to ask them to take drastic pay cuts to keep the studio alive. “We have to get people in theaters,” he says, hands outstretched. This is 1933, when banks closed and the country was near the end of The Great Depression. The Oscars skipped a 1933 ceremony and a full 17 months of films moved to the 6th Academy Awards in 1934. Sound familiar? The heated 1934 California governor’s race is given a surprising amount of real estate in the film (perhaps too much) and provides one of the clearest homage to Citizen Kane.
As actress Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried enters the picture looking like Madonna in “Express Yourself” and sounding like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “Aw, nerts!” should re-enter the lexicon immediately. She is positively luminous as Davies and at the perfect place in her career for a role like this. Seyfried is loose and feisty, girlish and mature and it’s a balanced and grounded performance that opens up our understanding of Davies as so much more than William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and the butt of the joke in Citizen Kane. Her awards-worthy performance is likely to score her a well earned Oscar nomination. Ozark‘s Tom Pelphrey, as Herman’s brother Joe, is deeply effective as a sympathetic and more cogent representative of the Mankiewicz brand and, like Seyfried, feels perfect in this period. He could have been a huge star in the 1930s with a performance like this.
It’s Davies’ relationship to real estate and newspaper magnate Hearst (“this is all Pops’ idea, he wants me to take on the talkies”) that brings Mank into his fold, calling the writer the Shakespeare of his time. Little does he know what’s in store for the Golden Age of pictures and how he’ll be forever enshrined in it. As Hearst, Charles Dance isn’t quite the menacing figure you expect him to be. He’s far more reserved for a man who was such a kingmaker and monolith of the time. Still, his elaborate parties at the legendary San Simeon are on display here as he, Mank, Mayer and more debate the impending election, Upton Sinclair, socialism and Nazis in a way that feels as 2020 as it does 1934.
Fincher adopts numerous classic film style approaches to the film, from recording in mono sound – which bounces off the walls like an echo even in exterior scenes – to added film edit blips like he employed in Fight Club. The commitment to immersing us into a 1930s/1940s mood is impressive but I wish cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt had adopted the classic Academy ratio of the time as well. It’s a minor gripe for such a gorgeously shot film, which is, at times, a delirious blend of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil. Oscar, Grammy and Emmy winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross imbue their score with that same level of commitment to the period that’s unlike anything they’ve ever done.
While it may ire some film purists and especially Orson Welles fans, the position the script by Jack Fincher (father of David) takes is similar to Pauline Kael’s exhaustive examination, that Mankiewicz largely created the screenplay for Citizen Kane on his own. “…unearned praise is insulting, and a burden,” she said in her famous ‘Raising Kane’ piece for the The New Yorker in 1971, continuing, “Welles sometimes says, “I drag my myth around with me.” His true achievements are heavy enough to weigh him down.” As her essay was later heavily discredited it’s a risky choice to maintain her position but it doesn’t make the film any less entertaining, most especially because the focus of Citizen Kane screen credit is a remarkably small part of the film’s focus.
Orson Welles (an extremely well cast Tom Burke) looms large over Mank, almost ghostly sometimes, mostly in phone calls and out of focus shots, but the film’s final moments will give cineastes and film historians a lot to talk about as we witness the face-off we’ve been waiting for and a final salvo that takes aim and fires a deadly shot. It’s one of the year’s best films.
Mank will be in select theaters beginning November 13 and then exclusively on Netflix December 4.