'Mank': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in 'Mank'

Film geek heaven, but will it play?

Gary Oldman plays Herman J. Mankiewicz, the alcoholic writer sequestered in the Mojave Desert to finish his screenplay for Orson Welles' 'Citizen Kane,' in David Fincher's behind-the-scenes look at 1930s Hollywood.

When Gary Oldman staggers onto an MGM film set as hungover screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in Mank and Louis B. Mayer asks who he is, Irving Thalberg replies dismissively, "Just a writer." David Fincher's forensic probe into the turbulent weeks Mankiewicz spent finishing his Citizen Kane script for Orson Welles aims to correct that slight and restore the reputation of an often overlooked architect of that 1941 classic, casting a jaundiced eye over 1930s Hollywood just as the Screen Writers Guild was in its infancy. Steeped in the inspirations behind Welles' debut film and the bold stylistic tropes that made it such a landmark, the Netflix feature is a cinephile's dream. At least on the surface.

While Mankiewicz is his gateway character, Fincher is no less intent on paying homage to Welles' other key collaborator on Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland. Mank is a work of dazzling craftsmanship. Production designer Donald Graham Burt and costumer Trish Summerville take their cues from Welles, conjuring both the glamour and grit of 1930s and early '40s California with consummate flair. The tonally shape-shifting score by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross moves supply between Bernard Herrmann influences and the big band jazz of the era. Editor Kirk Baxter's artful scene transitions and theatrical fades are swoon-worthy, with period monaural sound design completing the deluxe retro package. But it's the director's reteaming with Mindhunter DP Erik Messerschmidt that dominates this film.

Photographed digitally in what's billed as "Hi-Dynamic Range," the sumptuous black and white visuals echo the mesmerizing chiaroscuro lighting, the virtuoso continuous shots, the thematically weighted compositions and penetrating deep-focus gaze that have made Citizen Kane an eternal staple of film studies classes.

From the gorgeous opening titles crawl over a cloudy California sky, the camera pans down to reveal two black sedans zooming along a Mojave Desert road as the slug line reads: EXT. VICTORVILLE — GUEST RANCH — DAY — 1940. That intro suggests from the outset that this might be as much an exercise in meticulously studied vintage technique as a vital piece of storytelling with a pulse of its own.

Oldman creates a robustly inhabited character out of the self-destructive, jaded Manciewicz, the New York playwright and drama critic-turned-screenwriter who was perhaps too smart for Hollywood. He summed up the milieu in Western Union telegrams to his writer pals back East: "Come at once. There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots."

But for a big-canvas, large-ensemble picture that aims to break down the real-life figures depicted in Citizen Kane while tracing the intersection of art, commerce and politics in Depression-era Hollywood, there are more quick sketches than full-blooded characters. Working from a diligently researched screenplay by his late father, Jack Fincher, the director has made a high-style piece of cinematic nostalgia that's a constant pleasure to look at but only intermittently finds a heartbeat.

The film seldom comes close to the thrilling combination of immersive period evocation and urgent, highly disciplined storytelling that made Fincher's Zodiac both cerebral and stomach-churning.

One aspect that ought to be of paramount interest is the clash between Mankiewicz and the egomaniacal 24-year-old Welles (Tom Burke), whose success in theater and radio drama had secured him the rare privilege in Hollywood of full creative autonomy, including final cut. But Welles is little more than a darkly charismatic bit player here. His efforts to sideline Mankiewicz by paying him off before rewrites and removing his name from the credits create sparks only in the closing scenes.

Most of what comes before is a rambling series of vignettes — many of them admittedly scintillating — that mirror the anachronic, flashback-heavy structure of Citizen Kane without building consistent momentum or dramatic stakes. It's ironic that in revisiting the birth of a film celebrated for its innovative narrative structure of shifting points of view, Mank's weakness is its lack of a gripping through line.

As another erudite New York theater transplant, John Houseman (Sam Troughton), puts it while assessing early progress on Mankiewicz's first draft: "A hodgepodge of talky episodes. It's a collection of fragments that leap around in time, like Mexican jumping beans." The Finchers clearly are winking at the audience to clue us in about what they're doing. But acknowledgment of the imitative device doesn't help provide this choppy historical account with a binding perspective.

The movie opens with Mank, as his friends call him, being deposited in the desert with a broken leg from a recent auto accident. He's set up with a British steno typist (Lily Collins) and a German nurse (Monika Gossmann), given strict limits on his alcohol intake, and told he has 90 days — preferably 60 — to finish the screenplay while Welles is busy doing tests for a movie version of Heart of Darkness that would never be made.

The action almost immediately jumps back a decade to Mank's early days as head of the writing staff at Paramount, where he enlisted such revered New York talent as Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman. There's an irreverent sense of whip-smart guys slumming it in an industry for which they have little respect in these scenes — the typist for their unproductive writers' room meetings is a topless woman, wearing pasties — notably an improvised B-movie pitch to an unimpressed David O. Selznick and Josef von Sternberg.

The jazzy energy of these studio scenes, paired with complementary zing in the underscoring, recalls the work of Fincher's Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin in the rapid-fire rhythms of the dialogue.

One of Mank's writing recruits, Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), provides a link to his aunt, Brooklyn-born showgirl-turned-Hollywood starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Mank instantly warms to her, correctly intuiting that she's smarter than she acts. She in turn introduces him to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), her lover and career champion, who is amused by Mank's insouciant candor.

The film's diffuse conflict comes from pressure on Mank to finish the script and the spreading concerns around town once word gets out that his protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, is a thinly veiled representation of Hearst. Mank is more forthcoming about this — and about MGM chief Mayer (Arliss Howard), whom he considers Hearst's lapdog, being the model for Kane's loyal business manager Bernstein — than he is about Marion being the inspiration for Kane's second wife, the untalented singer Susan Alexander.

"I hear you're hunting dangerous game," Mank's brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey, terrific) tells him by way of a warning. Joe is one of a handful of people, including Marion, who drive out to Victorville to try to dissuade him from making such a powerful enemy. The younger Mankiewicz is a more prudent player, his introduction to Hollywood providing one of the livelier early scenes in a walk-and-talk with Mayer across the MGM lot as the studio chief spews cheap sentiment about his love for the workers, before asking the assembled "family" to take 50 percent pay cuts.

It's great to see Howard biting into a colorful character like Mayer with such ferocity, embodying the scrappy bulldog as well as the mawkish populist who weeps at sob stories. His gimlet-eyed focus on the bottom line fits with Fincher's observation of dream factory magic right alongside corporate soullessness. Mayer's fawning subservience to Hearst — played with icy composure and coolly appraising intelligence by Dance — is seen in extended flashbacks throughout that feed Mank's growing disgust in the two men and everything they represent. "If I ever go to the electric chair, I'd like him to be sitting in my lap," he says of Mayer.

The screenwriter sours on them especially during the 1934 California gubernatorial election, in which Mayer puts his weight behind GOP incumbent Frank Merriam over "that lousy Bolshevik," the writer and former Socialist Party member Upton Sinclair. Mank unwittingly gives them the means to take down Sinclair when he tells Mayer's astute vice president of production, Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), that if they can make an audience believe King Kong is 10 stories tall, then they can convince financially struggling Californians of anything.

That inadvertent strategic advice leads to radio spots with a veteran actress playing an impoverished widow when she's actually swimming in oil money, and newsreels in which "real" folks weigh in on both candidates while footage of hobos pouring into the state ("Boxcar Tourists Flood Cal," screams one headline) instills fear into voters concerned that their way of life is under threat. Sound familiar? The tragedy of Mank's good friend Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane), who sacrifices his moral conscience for a chance to direct those propaganda reels, adds to the bile steadily consuming the writer.

All this is absorbing enough, but if the intention was to instill pathos into the experience of a writer producing his best work for an industry that sickens him and an artist averse to sharing credit, Mank comes up short. This is no fault of Oldman's, who loses himself in the drunken cynicism of a man whose writing is now his only tenuous link to any kind of idealism.

The performance crescendos with a drunken spiel when the uninvited guest turns up at a lavish Hearst dinner party at the newspaper publisher's palatial San Simeon estate and proceeds to pitch his version of a modern-day Don Quixote, with Hearst as the knight-errant and Mayer as his Sancho Panza. But the inherent sadness of this fiercely intelligent man being reduced to the court jester, the organ grinder's monkey, lacks resonance.

The San Simeon interludes, stunningly rendered by production designer Burt, of course are the real-life foundation for Kane's sprawling Xanadu compound. One of Mank's most transfixing scenes is a late-night stroll Herman takes with Marion around the grounds and their exotic animal enclosures. The mix of sass, sweetness and shrewd self-preservation in Seyfried's lovely characterization makes their handful of scenes together the warmest moments in a movie that mostly unfolds at a distance — aesthetically ravishing but emotionally remote.   

Production company: Netflix International Pictures
Distributor: Netflix (in theaters Nov. 13, streaming Dec. 4)
Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Tony Leonard Moore, Monika Gossmann, Charles Dance
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Jack Fincher
Producers: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski
Director of photography: Erik Messerschmidt

Production designer: Donald Graham Burt
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Editor: Kirk Baxter
Casting: Laray Mayfield
Rated R, 132 minutes