There’s a universe out there where the name Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) means very little to anyone, and we were dangerously close to living in it. Had Mank himself not come forth and demanded Orson Wells give him credit for his own work than his name would be only an unread footnote in the expanse of film history. Instead, Mank did confront the wunderkind, and now David Fincher tells his story, a story which mixes the alcohol-induced creation of Citizen Kane with life lived that drove the man to write the classic tale.
This film is a complex mind map approach to capturing the life of a genius and Mank the man is witty, endearing, and undeniably talented. Mank, the film, on the other hand, is almost a war. A war both within the title character and amongst the forces surrounding him. Primarily Mank is a studio hack, bound to MGM by contract and expected to do everything Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) asks of him.
Yet concurrently, he is a budding socialist witnessing a time where the United States, and Hollywood in particular, was in desperate need of some fairness. This comes to a head when it becomes clear MGM will be the cause of the Democrats undoing by releasing propaganda starring paid actors, all by command of the infamous William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Most of the film revolves around these two in one way or another, often indirectly, but consistently. Mank is almost the justification for lampooning Hearst with Citizen Kane. Their relationship plays as an analysis from every angle throughout, from its unassuming beginning to a drunken rage that sees their relationship finally sour. However, as mentioned it isn’t Hearst who takes centre stage, it is his long-time mistress, and friend of Herman Mankiewicz, Marion Davies.
Played by Amanda Seyfried with enchanting poise, Davies is utterly swoon-worthy as she flutters her charms and matches wits with Mank. Ultimately, she becomes a tragic character, an unfair victim of Mank’s scorn for Hearst, but her friendship and kindness glows. And whilst Fincher continues the line that Davies is not depicted in Citizen Kane, as many believe she is, he nonetheless offers her a glorious revival and catharsis in this film.
All of the above is shown to us in flashbacks removing us from the room in which an injured Mank wrote his magnum opus. Unable to walk and needing an in house nurse and an assistant type up his diction Herman, restricted from his vice, is given 60 days to provide Wells with a script. He spends most of this time befriending Rita Alexander (lily Collins, his assistant) and Frieda (Monika Gossmann, his nurse) as they slowly but surely become gateways to reveal a truly tender and loveable man who rises above his alcoholism as best he can, only truly needing it to write. Of course, this is a deeply romanticised view of Mank’s drinking, even for a clearly very high functioning alcoholic it cannot have been this pretty.
In fact, according to the film, the hiccups in his life don’t even come from alcohol, bar a particularly dramatic stoush with Hearst, which results in him winning an Oscar in the long run. Strangely it is mostly good moments that are marked with alcohol, like his entire relationship with Davies and his ability to finish the script by the deadline, it makes for an odd sensation when the closing text reads that his alcoholism was the death of him.
Regardless Fincher has created something exceptional with his efforts here, and while it won’t be for all tastes, it will be delightful for lovers of cinema, thanks to an abundance of references that with soar over the heads of the general audience. Oldman’s performance alone is worth the price of admission and will see him firmly in contention at the academy awards. Together they have worked to resurrect a long since forgotten name, and I think they have done so better than anyone else could.
Mank is a tribute to a man history almost forgot. For all its many wonders, its true gift is allowing people to know that while a genius did direct Citizen Kane, it’s a completely different one who wrote it.
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