David Fincher moves into new territory by looking back at Hollywood history.


Gary Oldman holds court as Herman J. Mankiewicz


The talk of potential Oscar glory for this new film by David Fincher is far from being misplaced and, even if it strikes me as a work that goes somewhat off-course late on, it is one of the richest screen offerings of 2020 - for which reason it calls for a substantially longer review than usual. Most films immediately fall neatly into a single category and then follow through on that, but Mank is several things at once all rolled up into a single narrative about the writer Herman Mankiewicz played by Gary Oldman.


Mankiewicz was a journalist and a playwright as well as being a noted screenwriter but it would be the screenplay for Citizen Kane, for which he was credited together with Orson Welles, which would constitute his greatest claim to fame. Mank is to some extent a character study of Mankiewicz which, through flashbacks to the 1930s (the first in 1930), presents him as a talented man but one addicted to alcohol and to gambling. It also shows him as outspoken on social and political issues, a man ready to support the famous left-wing writer Upton Sinclair when in 1934 the latter was the Democratic contender in the gubernatorial campaign in California.


The film's main narrative is set in 1940 when Mankiewicz was under pressure from Welles (Tom Burke) and from his associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to complete the script entitled 'America` which would eventually emerge as Citizen Kane. Nevertheless, although the flashbacks touch on several different years, 1934 and that election become a key element in Mank. Even so, it is by no means impossible to define Mank as being a film about the writing of Kane, a subject that has grown controversial in recent years following assertions disputed by many that the importance of Mankiewicz's contribution to this classic film has been inadequately recognised. It was nevertheless Welles himself who as co-author of the screenplay that would earn the two men an Oscar insisted that Mankiewicz should be the first named (despite seeing things from Mankiewicz's viewpoint this film does acknowledge that). However, it is important to stress that this aspect of the film develops alongside those flashback scenes which, initially brief, soon grow into a fully-fledged drama linked to that 1934 election.


It's fascinating that Fincher's film should utilise a screenplay written by his father, Jack Fincher, who died in 2003: it yields a work that skilfully blends these two dramas drawing on events in 1934 and 1940 respectively. Furthermore, it is also possible to take a broader view of Mank. Whichever period is being featured this is a film about Hollywood that can be described as a love letter to cinema in the 1930s. It may be shot in modern wide screen but it is photographed quite splendidly by Erik Messserschmidt in black and white and evokes the period wonderfully. In addition, its literate screenplay itself pays homage to another past era of Hollywood, that associated with the quality scripts of Joseph L. Mankiewicz such as 1950's All About Eve. This is, of course, particularly apt since Joseph was the younger brother of Herman Mankiewicz and he appears in the film played by Tom Pelphrey as a subsidiary but not unimportant character.


But if Mank is indeed steeped in love for cinema's past that does not mean that its tone is uncritical. In fact, it stands beside such exposés as Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) but in this case it is the studio bosses such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) who in their controlling and exploitative ways are seen as the villains of the piece. Thus it is that, while inviting us to relish this evocation of Hollywood past (a world in which figures passing before our eyes range from Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford to David O. Selznick and Darryl F. Zanuck), Mank can also be bitingly cynical as it looks at this world from the viewpoint of subordinated writers (Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman and others are glimpsed alongside our central figure). Among the producers seen there is a more substantial role for Irving Thalberg, a part taken by Ben Kingsley's son Ferdinand.


The diverse elements to be found in Mank cohere without difficulty since, quite apart from Herman Mankiewicz always being the key figure in the flashbacks, those sections also show how he became acquainted with the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and with Hearst's mistress, the actress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and these are of course the people who would come to be recognised as the inspiration for two of the central characters in Citizen Kane. Consequently, the scenes which look back do more than offer a way to fill in Herman Mankiewicz's background and his marriage (Tuppence Middleton plays his wife, Sara). But what does surprise here - indeed, it makes one wonder if the original screenplay has been amplified - arises from the fact that yet another level of drama comes into play when the film deals in some detail with that election campaign of 1934. It appears that Mayer and Thalberg who were supporters of Upton Sinclair's opponent the Republican Frank Merriam sought to aid him by creating a bogus newsreel of professed opinions favouring this candidate. Given that that accurate historical fact justifies a charge of fake news and bearing in mind that Sinclair is seen as a Democrat who if supported would unleash socialism in America, Mank becomes alongside so many other things a work that brings to mind recent political parallels.


The talk of Mank becoming a likely Oscar winner is even more understandable when you consider the performances. Oldman is on his very best form and in an admirable supporting cast (which also includes Lily Collins as the English typist aiding Mankiewicz as he works on his screenplay) both Seyfried and Howard do particularly well. For that matter the period setting is enhanced by the music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  With all of this going for it Mank might well have turned out to be a masterpiece - indeed as it proceeded I thought that it might be just that. But then in the home stretch the quality of the writing seems to falter. In saying that I am not siding with those who decry Mank because it sometimes indulges in dramatic licence. We all know that most films based on true events do that and in the case of Mank titles are inserted at intervals which not only clarify the time and location for the next scene but also include indications specifying as in a script whether it is an exterior or an interior. To my mind this underlines the fact that we are watching a film and consequently reminds us that this is a drama to be enjoyed rather than a work to be trusted for its historical accuracy.


Accordingly, the thing that troubles me is not a certain freedom with facts but the film's failure to maintain conviction on its own terms. Some instances of failure are quite small. A last encounter between Herman Mankiewicz and Marion Davies ends with an exchange which just because it is so very neat sounds fictional and there's a touch of cliché when Herman's typist receives good news in the film's concluding minutes. More significantly, the climax of the 1934 material feels even more fictional (it was no surprise to learn subsequently that the character involved here was an invented one). Most seriously of all there is a climactic scene set in 1936 when we see Mankiewicz as a guest of Hearst at San Simeon. He is drunk at the time but what he says invokes Don Quixote and anticipates what he will later put into his screenplay for Welles and that he would say all this fails to convince (the dialogue when Hearst eventually escorts him off the property is similarly unlikely). A further fact adds to the sense that the last scenes are less adept: in a film lasting 131 minutes the number of flashbacks eventually comes to seem excessive and that feeling is increased when a late sequence set in 1936 is interrupted and then resumed. 


The errors of judgment mount up to the extent that I would not describe Mank as a masterpiece, not even a flawed one. But it is nevertheless one of the most ambitious films to come out of Hollywood for some years, it contains several brilliant performances and is undoubtedly worth seeing, especially if you should decide that my reservations about its last quarter are overstated.




Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Tom Pelphrey, Jamie McShane, Ferdinand Kinsgley, Sam Troughton, Joseph Cross, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Gossmann, Leven Rambin.


Dir Davis Fincher, Pro Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth and Douglas Urbanski, Screenplay Jack Fincher, Ph Erik Messerschmidt, Pro Des Donald Graham Burt, Ed Kirk Baxter, Music Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Costumes Trish Somerville.


Netflix International Pictures-Netflix.
131 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 4 December 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12A.