Right from jump street, Mank is so gotdamn much. Director David Fincher goes to 11 in creating a Golden Age-style spectacle and telling the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Citizen Kane screenwriter played all paunchy and sharp-tongued here by Gary Oldman.
Much like Kane, Mank boasts a non-linear narrative, complete with unexpected blackouts that look like the movie is going in and out of consciousness. We mostly see Mankiewicz writing Kane as he’s laid up in a bed in a secluded ranch, recovering from a broken leg after a car accident, with an English typist (Lily Collins) and a German housekeeper (Monika Gossman) to keep him company. But we also dart back to his glory days as a Hollywood screenwriter, working on studio lots with other legendary wordsmiths and serving as the resident, boozy wit at swanky parties held by media giant William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
This movie is a labor of love for Fincher — his dad Jack wrote the screenplay back in the ‘90s, before he died in 2003. (Fincher was supposed to shoot his old man’s script after he finished The Game, with Seven serial killer Kevin Spacey as Mankiewicz.) So, of course, Fincher took this to Netflix, which is now in the business of giving filmmakers dump trucks of cash to make long-gestating projects studios wouldn’t touch.
Seeing as how this film paints Mankiewicz as the unsung creative hero of the Citizen Kane history — the script had to have been inspired by an infamous, widely discredited New Yorker piece Pauline Kael wrote where she declared Mankiewicz mostly came up with Kane, not writer/director Orson Welles — you can understand why studios wouldn’t want Peter Bogdanovich or other Welles enthusiasts giving them drama. (Hell, Welles only pops up in a few scenes.)
The way the movie tells it, Mankiewicz wrote Kane as a big middle finger not only to Hearst, but to bullying studio bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), who wanted to hold on to their power and wealth by aiding in a gubernatorial race which pitted a Republican candidate against author/socialist/working-class hero Upton Sinclair (played briefly by — I kid you not — Bill Nye!).
It’s a complicated — and wholly fabricated — way of making Mankiewicz look like a flawed but noble man in a land full of tyrants. But then again, Mank proudly presents its protagonist as a wobbly white knight who was way too smart for the room. The man effortlessly drops tart quips and bon mots all over the place. He’s charming enough for his long-suffering wife (Tuppence Middleton) to put up with his alcoholic ass. Ol’ girl doesn’t even mind when her hubby starts a chummy bond with Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
After years of moody, muted, darkly-lit films that appear to take place in a universe where people are deathly allergic to sunlight, Fincher seems to relish in going all black-and-white. (Dude still has a problem lighting his actors; when he gives them close-ups, they look clammy and drained.) He rounds up his crew of behind-the-scenes regulars (including cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, editor Kirk Baxter, production designer Donald Graham Burt, and music men Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, both hitting us with the sweeping compositions) in coming up with sequences that sparkle and pop to the point to where it seems like Fincher overdoes it with the old-school, cinematic opulence.
It’s still a bit odd when a contemporary filmmaker decides to do a black-and-white film. (Remember Steven Soderbergh’s awkward, 2006 film noir The Good German?) Despite Fincher adding smart-alecky touches like “cigarette burns” — those small, circular marks that appear on the upper-right side of the screen to indicate a change in reels is coming (this might also bring a smile to Fight Club fans) — you know damn well this was all done on digital cameras.
As you plow through all two hours and 11 minutes, you realize Mank cares less about being a factual biopic on a silver-screen screenwriter and more about going back to those grand, glory days of Dream Factory-era Hollywood — and throwing a bit of rebelliousness into the mix. Along with Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, it’s yet another Netflix product that gives you an alternate history of Tinseltown where the troublemakers and the hellraisers get their time to shine.
“Mank” streams on Netflix starting Friday.