'Mank' Is a Beautiful Requiem for Depression-Era Hollywood

Directed by David Fincher

Starring Gary Oldman, Tom Burke, Arliss Howard, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance

BY Luke PearsonPublished Dec 3, 2020

With the exceptions of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and possibly The Social NetworkDavid Fincher has spent much of his feature film career in various seedy underworlds, most often amongst serial killers and those who chase them, and probably most famously with Tyler Durden's regressive anarchist cult in Fight Club. The perfect pair of hands to take on the dark side of 1930s Hollywood, then? Perhaps, but Mank (out December 4 on Netflix) is so much more than the simple noir it could have been — with its setting, black and white palette, and hard-drinking lifestyle of its protagonist, legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played here with brilliant, gregarious charm by Gary Oldman), there was an obvious tone readymade for this.

Instead, Fincher has given us a sweeping, melancholy requiem for Depression-era Hollywood that will likely be seen by many as his best yet. Based on a screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher, a journalist working when the legends (and gossip) of the events in Mank were still fresh, it's an ambitious and richly detailed period drama, as well as the slow-motion tale of a man brilliantly failing upwards despite himself.

Taking place in 1940s Hollywood, but bouncing back and forth via flashback to various points in the '30s, the film is only marginally about Mankiewicz's dispute with Orson Welles (a booming Tom Burke, exuding rugged literary masculinity from every pore) over screenwriting credit for Citizen Kane. Instead, it spends much of its time at various points in the preceding decade, showing how Mankiewicz got to the point he's at in the present, holed up in the Mojave Desert, convalescing from a broken leg (as well as social and professional ostracization), writing what would become popularly known as the greatest film of all time — a film which many will note features a similarly cyclical narrative style (revolutionary at the time) to Fincher's film.

Those fond of meta-observations like these, and film historians more generally, will definitely savour the exquisite period detail on display here, and the various real-life figures that populate the film. Arliss Howard is especially memorable as Louis B. Mayer (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame), portrayed here as the arch dream manufacturer in the Mad Men vein, yet with heartstrings so finely tuned he's liable to cry at the mere hint of pathos — a white handkerchief, daintily dropped, is an amusing detail at one point. Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, the mistress of media baron and movie financier W. R. Hearst (Charles Dance in standard patrician mode á la Tywin Lannister/Lord Mountbatten), is also excellent. There was endless debate at the time over whether the failed singer character of Susan Kane in Citizen Kane was based on her (as Charles Foster Kane was more obviously based on Hearst), and not without lurid sexual theories about her. A Hollywood survivor in what was very much a man's world, she's portrayed here as having a genuine affection for Mankiewicz that's nonetheless tested over the years — a complex characterization that Seyfried navigates expertly, her scenes with Oldman some of the most tender in the film. Oldman himself towers over all, however, an exuberant dervish of drunken eloquence who's never so far gone that he can't quote Pascal; he's at the forefront of every scene he's in, whether arriving late or being escorted out.

With its expansive cast and flashback-heavy structure, this could easily have fallen apart, but Fincher's grip is firm and sure, although perhaps lacking in some of the more inventive camera techniques he's used in the past (we're reminded of this adventurous style by a quick zoom towards the unused notebooks laying at Mankiewicz's bedside, signalling a leap through time). Perhaps consciously working in a more mature register in accordance with the rarefied air of Old Hollywood reverence, he's evened out his style in favour of a steadier, less showy hand, and it's probably for the best given all the material here (an inessential war-widow sub-plot could have easily been cut). The work of stewarding us through it all coherently and enjoyably is a task in itself.

Special mention should also go to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score, which adds just the right amount of Hitchcockian menace to the proceedings, especially when accompanying certain looming shots of San Simeon (Hearst's castle-like compound in the Hollywood Hills, where the media and cinema elite would congregate for rambling dinner parties and free-wheeling shop-talk). A lot of Mank is made up of scenes like these — the Depression, the shift from silent movies to talkies, the shadow of World War II; there was a lot to talk about back then. Goebbels is mentioned in hushed tones on more than one occasion, the thin line between art and propaganda and the potential, even frightening power of the film industry dawning on them all. It's a heady and sometimes demanding film (and overlong), but Mank is an undeniable triumph for Fincher, and will likely be remembered come awards season.

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