At some point, most big-name contemporary directors make a movie about the process of making movies, whether it’s actually about a film crew, like Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, or about an operation that bears a suspicious resemblance to a film crew, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
The surprise of David Fincher’s Netflix movie Mank isn’t that another beloved auteur has made his movie about movies, it’s that Fincher’s version isn’t about a visionary, obsessive director — actual or metaphorical. It’s about a for-hire writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz, a frequent uncredited script doctor in golden-age Hollywood, and a credited co-writer of Citizen Kane, who shared the film’s only Academy Award with director-star Orson Welles.
While Fincher has a reputation more like Welles’ controlling grandiosity than the witty, put-upon writer who can’t stop himself from making devastating cracks, the screenplay credit for Mank reveals a possible source of this unexpected loyalty: It’s written by Fincher’s late father Jack, who completed his draft in the late 1990s. (The elder Fincher shared Mankiewicz’s hybrid background of journalism and screenwriting.) Moreover, Mank isn’t really about a Citizen Kane credit arbitration. The movie’s Welles does fume when Mank (Gary Oldman) decides he wants his name on the picture after initially agreeing to anonymity. But for most of the film, Welles is an offscreen presence, and when he does turn up, Tom Burke’s wobbly imitation diminishes his role.
Instead of focusing on the actual making of Citizen Kane, the movie jumps back and forth in time, covering Mankiewicz’s 1930s experiences in Hollywood and in the social circles of mogul William Randolph Hearst (Game of Thrones star Charles Dance), which inform the Kane script. Mankiewicz gets to know Hearst through a mildly flirtatious bond with his mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Other featured Old Hollywood characters include Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).
Years later, Mank works on the Welles assignment while he’s laid up in seclusion, recovering from a car accident and (temporarily, barely) restricted from alcohol by his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). As he continues to dictate pages to Rita, the flashbacks reach California’s 1934 gubernatorial election, where Mank becomes disillusioned by the hit job against progressive candidate Upton Sinclair (played briefly by no less than Bill Nye, the Science Guy). Meanwhile, Mank falls into increasingly destructive alcoholism.
The back-and-forth structure vaguely recalls Citizen Kane, yet it lacks the sophisticated, propulsive energy that powers that classic’s multiple-interview storytelling. The fluidity is replaced by clacking subtitles that identify the year and location in screenplay terms: “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS — DAY — 1930 (FLASHBACK),” and so on. Is this a commentary on the workmanlike effort that can go into even a nimble screenplay, or is the movie itself a little workmanlike? Fincher turns that ambiguity into a playfulness that even some of his pulp adaptations have lacked. Where films like like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can feel like exacting, relentless journeys to nowhere in particular, Mank luxuriates in its dreamy atmosphere.
That atmosphere derives from a strange, crossbred style. Fincher uses era-appropriate black-and-white cinematography, and adds fake “cigarette burns” in the corner of the screen to simulate reel changes. But unlike any Hollywood movie from the 1930s or ’40s, Mank was shot on digital cameras, in the ultra-widescreen 2.35 aspect ratio. The films images have a dark, smoky quality that sometimes resembles old movies, and sometimes resembles heightened memories of old movies. Even the opening credits are a hybrid: They’re presented in a retro font and format that imitates classic title cards (Netflix becomes “Netflix International Pictures”), yet the actors’ names are integrated into the scenery like the extremely modern-looking opening credits to Fincher’s Panic Room.
Some may take this as a sign of Fincher’s lack of commitment to the bit — an inability to immerse himself in the past. Whatever the reasons, the effect it produces is often transfixing. When a hungover Mank stumbles onto an outdoor film shoot on the Hearst property and chats with Davies between takes, the spotlights and fake smoke produce an overlay of alternate reality against the natural backdrop. (Later, Mank reacts to an opened window at his cabin with “Jesus, what is that?” It’s sunlight.) An elite party at the Hearst estate isn’t intimate, in spite of its exclusivity; it’s full of big-name characters sprawled across a massive room in a single quip-laden conversation.
Sometimes the sheer number of familiar faces matched to familiar names becomes overwhelming. Seyfried’s performance pops out in part because her take on Davies shines so brightly outside of Mank’s orbit, where other characters, like Mank’s longsuffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) must revolve, or eventually exit. (Seyfried’s acting here also has a crispness missing from her mushier work.) As for Mank himself, Oldman is older than Mankiewicz was when he died, never mind 15 to 20 years earlier, when the film takes place. But Fincher makes that disconnect work, too: Even in his prime, Mank conducts himself with a spirited resignation — a paradoxical acknowledgment that his saving graces (talent, wit, some manner of principles) won’t actually save him.
Though the movie takes unofficial cues from Pauline Kael’s 1971 account of the making of Citizen Kane (which was largely refuted in later years), it’s ultimately not a writer’s revenge or even a lament, at least not about screenwriting in particular. Fincher’s movie about movies seems to be about attempting to work within a system that’s encompassing enough to impose itself on fantasies and reality alike. The movie’s version of Mank is perceptive enough to see this, and he struggles to protect himself, whether with detached cleverness or its good pal, substance abuse. His methods of protecting himself work, until they don’t.
Mank is streaming on Netflix now.