“You cannot write a man’s life in 2 hours, you can only hope to leave an impression of one.”
So says Mank, in an on-the-nose spoon-fed explanation of the film, and perhaps the biofilm genre as a whole. Mank makes good on this promise, delivering not just an impression of life but also an impression of a Hollywood age gone by. Mank chronicles the controversial screenplay behind de-facto greatest-film-of-all-time Citizen Kane, itself a film as famous for its rich production drama as its long-lasting effect on cinema.
Mank follows Herman Mankiewicz, a well-regarded if under the radar screenwriter in the studio system during Hollywood’s golden age of cinema. The framing device is Mank’s convalescence while he writes what will eventually become Citizen Kane, interspersed with regular flashbacks that reveal his character, relationship to William Randolph Hearst (the thinly-veiled subject of Citizen Kane), and how Mankiewicz got to this point.
Directed by David Fincher, an under-awarded auteur who has operated as one of the best in the business for more than two decades, Mank finds him at the top of his craft, directing a sumptuous delight, brimming with excellence and sonic delight in every frame.
A top-notch script and direction throws you right into a 40s picture, combined with a modern sensibility that lays bare the sleaze and corruption of Hollywood. It’s tightly scripted with careful attention to detail and exceptional production design. Gorgeously filmed in black and white by Erik Messerschmidt, Mank pops in every shot and feels at once both modern and timeless. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross rollicks, captivates, and haunts — perfectly setting the tone.
Oldman is perfectly cast as the title character, if only because it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing a 1930s Gary Oldman. But it’s Oldman at his best, charming and sly when it’s called for, his distance and penetrating gaze both soulful and weary, each line thoughtful and bearing depth and a multitude of meaning. And Amanda Seyfried co-stars as 1920s screen star Marion Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst (played here by Game of Thrones Charles Dance). It’s a captivating turn, electric every time she’s on screen, in a role finally deserving of her oft untapped talents.
But for such an exquisitely scripted movie, Mank doesn’t have a lot to say. The glitz and glamor of old-school Hollywood hid a seedy underbelly driven by a capitalist class only interested in power and profit. You don’t say. Mank slowly ratchets up the drama and tension, building to a climax and cathartic confrontation. But it ultimately turns away, robbing the viewer of the denouement they deserve.
Nearly every facet of Mank is expertly crafted, and it’s a far more enjoyable film than it has any right to be as a biopic of an unheralded screenwriter from the 1930s, filmed as a love letter to Citizen Kane. Yet for all that, it’s surprisingly hollow. If only Mank was as good as the sum of its parts.