We've waited six long years for David Fincher to return to feature filmmaking, and at first glance, making a film about the making of another film should send off alarm bells. This has rarely worked before, and is often a self-conscious, self-serving way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back. This is David Fincher though - the man who made a masterpiece about Facebook, adapted pulpy novels to perfection and delivered a magnum opus on a mystery with no solution. This suggested that 'Mank', his look at the writing of the monolithic 1941 masterpiece 'Citizen Kane', might be more than it appeared to be. And of course, it is - rather than crafting a sentimental Hollywood love letter, this dazzling, ferocious film written by Fincher's late father Jack Fincher sees the great anarchist of American cinema deliver his most politically-charged film to date.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, 'Darkest Hour', 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy') is confined to bed after a car accident, and under contract to boy wonder Orson Welles (Tom Burke, 'The Souvenir') to provide him with the script to his first feature film. With stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins, 'Tolkien') at his side, Mank begins to dictate the grand operatic story of the rise and fall of an American mogul, how he went from a man of deep social conviction to a titan greedy for power and influence. Fuelling the writing are his memories of working at Metro Goldwyn-Mayer under the employ of Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, 'Concussion') and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) - and more importantly, his close relationship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, 'The Imitation Game') and his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, 'First Reformed').
As Mank's memory slips back to his time at MGM, we see him bear witness to the careful manipulations of Mayer and Thalberg, both of whom operate the studio as a kind of pseudo-family. For the employees, this gives them a sense of value. For the employers though, it gives them greater power to emotionally manipulate their "family" to their own needs. In one extraordinary scene, a weeping Mayer begs his staff to take a massive pay cut to get them through the Depression. He literally sobs with gratitude when they agree, but the moment he leaves the stage, drops the artifice and continues on his way. Mank's position within the studio system, as one of its shining stars and great raconteurs, gives him particular insight into this foul manipulation, and yet he accepts it as the way it needs to be. Why try and break the system when it has only ever benefited you? Better to stand by and critique it from the inside, call the bastards out to their face with a wry smile. That is until the reach of that manipulation extends beyond the world of smoke and mirrors with significant real-world consequences. The horror for Mank is the realisation that, despite his prognostications, he has been complicit in the dealings of terrible men doing terrible things. It's one thing to be aware of the hypocrisy around you; it's quite another to do something about it, and for the Mank we see galavanting and quipping around MGM and San Simeon, and the Mank in bed writing 'Citizen Kane', the question he has to answer is how much of a coward he is prepared to be.
'Mank' is as much about Hollywood's golden age as 'The Social Network' was about Facebook - it uses this particular time and place, and the creation of this particular work of art, to cry foul against the institutions of power set up to crush those they claim to benefit. Fincher and his collaborators go to great lengths to recreate the language of pre-war Hollywood cinema, but rather than simply being an impressive magic trick, it allows for the harsh and disorientating collision between the fantasy of the past and our contemporary reality. Mank watches (and inadvertently participates) in the use of cinema as an emotional tool of manipulation; a malicious and dangerous form of propaganda. The spectre of Nazism hangs over the film, but becomes all the more potent when the political machine from across the Atlantic being critiqued in one scene is subtly refashioned for their own purposes in another. Hearst, with Mayer and Thalberg as his lackeys, strikes at the xenophobic heart of the American people and uses fantastical paranoia to fashion the country as he sees fit. Underneath the gorgeous black and white cinematography and breathtaking period score is something fetid and foul, and uncomfortably familiar.
At one point, Mank remarks, "Not all characters are headliners. Some are secondary." This is what Mank believes of himself - that it is better to be seated next to greater men rather than volley for their spot at the table, giving him the protection he needs to do whatever he wants. He believes he is better than just a cog in the machine, free to do and say whatever comes to his mind, with small acts of protest that should absolve him. In the end though, he is just a cog in the machine, nothing more than a performing monkey kept on staff for the amusement of the rich and powerful, and that slow realisation eats away at his soul. For Mank, the writing of 'Citizen Kane' becomes an act of protest, calling truth to power, revealing the hypocrisy of these men who once believed in something but lost that belief when their own self-interests outweighed the interests of others. He is seeking absolution, and to find it, he can't be snide in the dark. He needs to stand and be heard, no matter the cost.
One of Fincher's great skills as a filmmaker is his ability to adapt his idiosyncrasies to match the story he is telling. With 'Mank', this requires him to contain the bombastic showmanship we've seen in his last few films and adopt a more controlled, subdued approach, but this doesn't mean the film doesn't sparkle with his magical anarchy. It makes sense that he should be drawn to a character like Mankiewicz: a punk in the studio system who approaches it with an affectionate "fuck you" attitude, but also conflicted by being part of a system he fundamentally does not agree with but cannot escape. The film crackles with electricity and wit, moving with a gorgeous and easy energy. Space is given to allow the characters and the politics to breathe, and as the thematic weight of the film grows, so too does the sense of dread as Mank throttles towards both collapse and victory. Golden Age Hollywood is recreated not as a fantasy but as a living, breathing organism. There could have been something obnoxiously self-conscious in making the film look and sound like something rediscovered in an archive, but here it feels fresh and appropriate, well-considered and ultimately employed for the benefit of the story it wants to tell. Fincher is rarely a director of excess, and not a second of 'Mank' is wasted or thrown away.
The horror for Mank is the realisation that, despite his prognostications, he has been complicit in the dealings of terrible men doing terrible things.
His extraordinary collaborators follow suit. This is the first feature film for cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who shot a number of episodes of Fincher's extraordinary series 'Mindhunter'. Here, he does so with such confidence, attention to detail and imagination that you would never know it was his first film. The results are all the more impressive considering black and white photography is an entirely different art to colour photography. Messerschmidt's work also helps to give this Fincher film a quality distinct from his work with usual collaborator Jeff Cronenweth. Production designer Donald Graham Burt and costume designer Trish Summerville, both of whom have worked with Fincher many times, have the considerable task of bringing this period of life, and do so in spectacular fashion. This is a world that feels lived in, where you can imagine real people walking through streets and back lots. It isn't an ideal vision of Hollywood, and the contrast of the opulence of the rich and powerful and the ordinariness of the everyday blue-collar worker adds to the political texture of the film - a prime example the evolution in the costumes for Tom Pelphrey playing Mank's younger brother Joe. Editor Kirk Baxter has a ball emulating the rhythms and editing tricks of 40s cinema, and makes sure that a film filled with long scenes of people talking has the necessary sense of urgency. One of the real delights of a new Fincher film is seeing what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross come up with for their score, and here they evoke the ghost of Bernard Hermann's music for 'Citizen Kane' with their own anarchic sensibilities in another musical triumph.
The performances across the board are fantastic, with not a stone out of place. Oldman is maniacally wicked and subtly haunted as Mank, a man who's never sure whether he wants to be the clown, the best friend or the asshole at any given moment. One of Oldman's best qualities as an actor is his way of balancing the horrid aspects of a character with the empathetic, and this is a prime example of that. He's beautifully matched by Lily Collins, someone who finally gets to show their talents under Fincher's directorial hand. The role of Rita could have been a thankless one, but her emotional and intellectual sparring with Mank make for a memorable, vital performance. The two standouts though are Amanda Seyfried as Marian Davies, and Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer. Davies is the heart of 'Mank', a woman undervalued for her intelligence but unsure of how to assert herself. This may be why she and Mank connect so deeply, seeing themselves in one another, animals trapped in their cages and unsure how to feel about it. Seyfried's performance is one of delicacy, humanity and grace, and she ensures that Davies, a woman to whom film history has always been horribly unkind, is given the dignity and integrity she deserves. On the flipside, Howard crafts Mayer into a petulant, imbecilic monster, easy to mock at one moment and shockingly dangerous on another. He is perfectly complemented by the quiet, calculated performance of Ferdinand Kingsley as Thalberg. In many ways, 'Mank' is an inversion of how Hollywood has trained us to think of these legendary men - Mayer is a pitbull, Thalberg is a snake and Orson Welles - a man determined to be seen as above the system - is just as manipulative, complicit and serf-serving as the others.
Rather than a burst of cinematic energy, 'Mank' is a considered, meticulous, subtle and ultimately furious film, one that continues to grow in your mind hours after seeing it. Even after two viewings, I can still hear my mind chewing over every second, my heart quietly racing as I consider its individual moments of genius. This isn't some nostalgic elegy to a great film or a great artist, but a damning portrait of how systems of power can be misused, and how good men find themselves complicit. It speaks ferociously to our contemporary world, and reminds us of the important role of art in a functioning society. In that sense, 'Mank' isn't a film about cinema; it's a film that asks what the point of cinema even is. It's a powerful, rebellious question to ask, and the kind of question only a filmmaker as skilled as David Fincher would dare to, and the imagination to find the answer. In the process, he may have just delivered the best film of the year.