David Fincher’s new film “Mank”, which is released here in South Korea today and will be available on Netflix early in December, presents a personal perspective from the writer who co-wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), which is incidentally one of the greatest works in the history of cinema. As a guy who has slowly come to admire “Citizen Kane” more and more after the first viewing in 1996, I certainly observed the movie with keen interest right from the first shot, and the movie does not disappoint me at all with its admirable style and mood, even though it occasionally feels distant and detached in its bitter and sardonic presentation of some very unpleasant sides of Hollywood during the 1930-40s.
The screenplay by late Jack Fincher, who is Fincher’s father, alternates between two time periods, one of which is when Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is sent to a ranch in Victorville, California in early 1940 for writing the screenplay for Welles. While he is still recovering from the injury from a recent car accident and also struggling with his alcoholism as before, Mankiewicz is willing to meet the rather early deadline set by Welles, and Welles’ close associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton) is understandably nervous about whether Mankiewicz can pull it off in the end, even though Mankiewicz will be assisted and supported by his German nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann) and his British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) during his stay at the ranch.
Mankiewicz’s difficult struggle for what can be his comeback work is often intercut with a series of flashback scenes from the 1930s, when he was one of the most prominent screenplay writers working in the MGM Studios. When his fellow writer Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) comes to Hollywood after receiving Mankiewicz’s invitation, Mankiewicz gladly shows him here and there inside the MGM studios, and there is a dryly humorous moment when Lederer, Mankiewicz, and other MGM staff writers attend a meeting with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), the head of the MGM Studios. Once one story idea is suggested, it is embellished step by step by Mankiewicz and his colleagues, and it goes without saying that Lederer gets an unenviable job of providing a finishing touch.
While Hollywood is surely a place where Mankiewicz and other writers can freely wield their talents especially after the introduction of talkies, the movie also incisively observes the less glamorous sides of Hollywood along with its hero. As the Great Depression is still continuing outside, Mayer emphasizes to a group of many different employees of his that they all should sacrifice to some degree as a, uh, family, but Mankiewicz clearly sees through the empty words in Mayer’s speech, though he just cynically observes without saying much.
Meanwhile, Lederer introduces to Mankiewicz a certain MGM star actress who happens to be Lederer’s aunt. She is Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and she and Mankiewicz quickly befriend each other during the shooting of her latest film, whose production is financed by Davies’ lover William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Besides being quite rich, Hearst is very influential around the country due to his newspapers, and it goes without saying that he is not someone Mankiewicz or others in Hollywood can mess with at any chance.
Through his connection with Davies, Mankiewicz is subsequently invited to Hearst’s huge mansion, which is, as many of you know, the main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in “Citizen Kane”. When Mankiewicz happens to stroll along with Davies outside Hearst’s mansion at one point, they come to have a sincere and honest conversation, and this little sweet moment is enhanced further by the surprisingly sensitive orchestral score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who try here something quite different from their stark and aggressive electronic scores for Fincher’s previous films.
During the second half of the film, the gradual completion of the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” is bitterly juxtaposed with Mankiewicz’s growing disillusionment with Hollywood. For stopping a certain famous left-wing figure running for the California gubernatorial election, Mayer, who is closely associated with Hearst, is ready to do anything, and we later get a chillingly relevant subplot involved with one of Mankiewicz’s close colleagues, who comes to feel quite remorseful after making a virulent propaganda film not so different from those fake news in our time.
In case of Welles, who is embodied well by a brief but pitch-perfect performance from Tom Burke, he comes to clash a lot with Mankiewicz later in the story as arguing with him over whether Mankiewicz’s name is put on the screenplay along with Welles’. This will surely remind you of that infamous controversy on the authorship of “Citizen Kane” ignited by Pauline Kael many decades ago, but the movie sidesteps that while mostly siding with Mankiewicz.
Because of firmly sticking to Mackiewicz’s weary viewpoint, the movie is constantly accompanied with a dry sense of detachment which may frustrate you along with its rather slow narrative pacing, but it is still an impressive piece of work thanks to Fincher, who has never made a film looking bad and lousy, and his crew members. The production design by Donald Graham Burt and the costume design by Trish Summerville are top-notch in their authentic period details, and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt serves us a number of gorgeous moments as distinctively evoking the visual textures of old classic Hollywood films during the 1930-40s.
As the center of the story, Gary Oldman, who will probably garner another Oscar nomination in the next year for this film, deftly balances his character among wit, humor, and pathos, and he is also surrounded by a bunch of good performers who dutifully fill their spots as demanded. While Charles Dance is formidably regal as Hearst, Amanda Seyfried brings considerable warmth and spirit to her rather underdeveloped role, and Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, and Monika Gossmann are well-cast in their respective supporting roles.
On the whole, “Mank” will require some patience from you for several good reasons, but it is a mostly rewarding experience I am willing to examine again sooner or later. Although I am not sure whether it is another career peak in Fincher’s filmmaking career after “The Social Network” (2010) and “Gone Girl” (2014), I still admire this beautifully dispassionate work a lot despite some reservation, and it is certainly one of the most notable films of this year.