The stereotypical image of writers is heavy smoking, hard drinking washed up hacks whose exasperated wives find themselves putting up with. It’s an image our Editor has done his best to perpetuate over the years (‘You’re fired!’ – Ed). That was certainly how writer Herman J. Mankiewicz , whose name nickname Mank is the film’s title, was by the time he had written the masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’. A revered New York writer he was lured to Hollywood like so many writers of the day to write screenplays and the film sees him with a broken leg after a car crash dropped off at a bungalow in the Mojave desert under orders from Orson Welles to finish the Citizen Kane script in the next 60 days rather than the 90 Mank was promised.
At this point in his career Mankiewicz had been in freefall and the script was a second chance and the film alternates between his writing and flashbacks to his career 10 years earlier. In that respect it echoes the structure of Citizen Kane and for cineastes there’s a whole load of references and homages to the the classic. Mank the man crackles with rapid fire cynicism yet he is still something of an idealist working under the MGM boss Louis B Meyer and his friend William Randolph Hearst the press baron that Citizen Kane was overtly about. These flashbacks are set during a political campaign by Democrat governor Upton Sinclair to become Governor of California in 1934 yet was scuppered by the undue influence and power wielded by Meyer and Hearst.
Both these bosses were shameless capitalists with Meyer pleading poverty to his studio staff in order to coerce them to agree to take a 50% cut in their pay whilst Hearst funds his mistress Marion Davies aspiring movie career (there’s a hint at a never consumated intimacy between her and Mank) and Welles, largely absent, pushes for the script only for him to insist that Mank relinquish a screen credit because of its thinly veiled dig at Hearst. Yet its Meyer who is the villain of the piece with a number of great scenes showing him as the monster that he was.
Mank is scripted by the late Jack Fincher, father to the film’s director David and there’s a number of good performances. Gary Oldman, though too old for the role, (in the film the writer is between 32 and 44 talking into account the flashbacks whereas Oldman is 62) comfortable enough in his sharp intellect to openly challenge powerful men without fear calling Hearst’s newspaper baron, ‘ a vaunted muckraker’. Arliss Howard as Louis Mayer is suitably egotistical and Charles Dance as Hearst is coolly odious and there’s good support from those playing John Houseman, David O Selznick (there’s an entertaining scene where a team of writers pitch a film that they make up as they go along), Irving Thalberg, Marion Davies and Tom Burke as Orson Welles gets the voice pitch perfect.
David Fincher is one of Hollywood’s A list directors a position which he has strived for since an inauspicious start with Alien 3 unlike Welles who was feted as a big name the moment he transferred his radio stardom to film. Fincher, much like Kubrick has garnered a reputation as a notorious perfectionist and has again used modern day technology to pin down a long gone era of film making with its visually lush black and white photography and visual flourishes from literary sources (scenes are typed up on screen in screenplay form – INT. MANKIEWICZ HOME. NIGHT). This is Fincher’s first film since ‘Gone Girl’ six years ago and in that time he has directed TV series for Netflix. Along with such directors as Scorsese, Spike Lee an Ron Howard he is the latest top flight film director who has been happy to produce films for the streaming giant rather than the conventional studios and in fairness what studio was likely to finance a lengthy feature film in black and white? Mank must surely bag Fincher a Best Director and Best Film Oscar nomination and maybe this time even a win.
Here’s the Mank trailer…….
MANK IS RELEASE ON NETFLIX ON 4TH DECEMBER 2020