They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Clearly no one let David Fincher know that.
From the guy that put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box in “Seven” – sorry, spoiler – and made us realize that Mark Zuckerberg is a cyborg through “The Social Network”, “Mank” tells the story of 1940s Hollywood outcast Herman Mankiewicz, a witty and inebriated Jewish screenwriter, whose firing from MGM Studios leads him to be commissioned by a fellow named Orson Welles to write the script for what would eventually become 1941 classic “Citizen Kane”.
Beginning with a car crash that leaves him bedridden in a small ranch outside Los Angeles, Mank – played by Oscar-winner and chameleon Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”) - is given a mere 60 days to finish what many consider to be the greatest piece of writing ever put on screen. Pressed with a tight deadline and seemingly handed his final opportunity to leave a lasting Hollywood legacy, he pulls together a haze of recollections about his own battles with the studio film system, fleeting friendships and fallout with media magnate William Randolph Hearst and swell of Depression-era socialism that swept California during the 1930s; he levels one last critical laugh at the expense of his old rivals, all with the help of a steady hand and diction provided by his secretary and friend Rita Alexander, played by Lily Collins (“Emily in Paris”).
From the moment we’re whisked on Mank’s bewildering ride, it’s clear the man’s story is as close to an autobiographical tale as can be found for Fincher – someone whose often been considered a genius and ranked atop the greatest living filmmaker lists, but ultimately remains criticized and labeled as “difficult” due to his refusal to compromise his creative visions in favor of playing by the rules of the studio system. Gifted a draft screenplay by his late father Jack and retooled by himself and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”, “Benjamin Button”) in recent years, every quick-witted conversation feels as though Fincher himself telling an inside joke about his own struggles, channeling the frustration he feels for Hollywood’s morally bankrupt hierarchy into some of the funniest work he’s ever produced. Typically, laughter isn’t something you associate with his work. Here it thrives and feels oddly at home.
Not to be outdone by his departure from the dark subject material he typically tackles, “Mank” is shot unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – a feat that alone warrants attention even if the subject matter doesn’t interest you. Filmed entirely in black and white and edited to look like exactly the motion pictures of the period, every moment of the film manages to somehow capture the beauty of locations despite the absence of color from the frame. One scene in particular, a gorgeously staged walk-and-talk among the gardens of Hearst’s San Simeon castle between Mank and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies – played by Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia”) – looks like an artifact straight from a time machine, and when harmonized alongside an unusually warm score from frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“Nine Inch Nails”) it truly signifies as close to a love letter as we might ever get from the man. I’ve been left speechless by the craftsmanship Fincher possesses dozens of times in the past, but never to positive – or, for that matter, pleasurable visual degrees – quite like the ones captured here.
While the technical achievement is worth marveling at alone, there’s no shortage of Oscar hopefuls to be found among the cast either. Oldman, always brilliant, but this time providing a hysterical yet sentimental portrayal of an irksome man whose alcohol-fueled moral fiber may be his only redeeming quality, is up there with the best work of the year - and moves miles beyond the award he received for donning a few prosthetics as Winston Churchill.
Meanwhile, Seyfried’s performance as trapped and aging Hollywood starlet Davies – who we come to learn lives like a mere object in Hearst’s “magical kingdom” – announces her long-delayed arrival as an actress worth watching. Seemingly always stuck somewhere between airhead plastic Karen, Channing Tatum’s love interest from “Dear John” and Meryl Streep’s paternally-confused, Abba-singing daughter in my head – Fincher again proves that he can pull wonderful work out performers who seem unfitting upon first glance. I was delighted to see her in a film of this prestige and hope this moment propels her toward similar roles in the future.
Now comes answers to the key question – do you have to watch “Kane” to appreciate what this movie offers? Perhaps the best part of the experience, the answer is no. “Mank” stands as a wonderful period piece that any can appreciate on its own merits, a fascinating look into the mind of a generational writer and something that classic filmmaking fans (and hopefully Oscar voters) will love. David Fincher appears to have opened up his heart for the world to see what lies inside, and lucky for him may be in time for a long-waited and deserved Best Director win.
You can find “Mank” streaming on Netflix right now