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Film Review: Mank

18 December 20 words: Roshan Chandy

David Fincher’s latest outing is a spanking tribute to a Hollywood heyday, writes Roshan Chandy…

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Burke
Running time: 131 minutes

In 2010, David Fincher directed The Social Network. It documented the rise and fall from grace of Mark Zuckerberg and was widely described by critics as the “digital age Citizen Kane”.

It’s interesting that, 10 years on, Fincher is now making a film about the making of Citizen Kane (1941). Mank has been a passion project of Fincher’s ever since his father Jack wrote the script in the 1990s before his death in 2003. The similarities with The Social Network go even further. Just like that film detailed the feud between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, Mank is about the famous fallout between director Orson Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz over who got credit for the writing of Citizen Kane, and film critic Pauline Kael’s accusation that Welles was not the genius behind the “greatest film of all time”, but Mankiewicz was.

The film begins in 1940 where Orson Welles (Tom Burke) gets the greenlight for his latest motion picture from RKO. Recovering from a leg injury he sustained in a car accident, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz receives a phone call from the 24-year-old filmmaker, explaining to him that he wants him to write the screenplay for his new film. Herman reads out his finished screenplay to his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) - her name is the inspiration behind the character of Susan Alexander Kane. She notes the similarities between Citizen Kane’s central character and media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

From the opening titles which play out against monochrome skies that could easily hang ominously over Xanadu mansion in Citizen Kane, Mank looks, breathes and feels like a movie made in the 1940s. It’s shot in a stylish, spanking black-and-white print with scratches on the frame. Lily Collins’s Rita Alexander even has a transatlantic accent as most people in old movies do and sounds an awful lot like Vivien Leigh. The old-style cinematography and colour schemes passionately evoke the spirit of 1940s Hollywood.

Fincher litters his movie with references to classic Hollywood productions. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is mentioned as Mankiewicz scripted the Kansas scenes for that movie in draft form. Plus the movie features a cameo from MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) who was last seen molesting Judy Garland in Judy (2019). In one scene, Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies says “I’ve just seen 42nd Street”. And Duck Soup (1933) gets a reference as Mankiewicz was an uncredited producer on that movie.

The performances are universally excellent from a high-calibre cast of British and American thesps. Gary Oldman may be 20 years too old to play the 42 year old Mankiewicz, but he perfects his one-legged gait and tendency towards public intoxication with ease. I especially liked the scene where he passes out in bed with a bottle of vodka dripping at his side and his drunken speech at Hearst Castle will look good on the clip reel.

This movie is rooted in the past and strives to recreate it

There’s star turns from the always brilliant Charles Dance as Hearst - the man who has always been talked about as the real inspiration behind Charles Foster Kane (although I prefer to see Kane as a Trump-like figure!). Meanwhile Arliss Howard is supremely slimy and unlikeable as the lecherous Louis B.Mayer. Proof that Harvey Weinstein wasn’t the only predatory sex offender-cum-studio figurehead.

But the biggest star of the show - and who should be getting Best Supporting Actress attention - is Amanda Seyfried, who goes darker and brattier than we’ve ever seen her go before as the beautiful blonde actress Marion Davies. An alcoholic, Davies was widely assumed to be the inspiration behind Charles Foster Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander, and this movie asserts that it was actually Rita Alexander who was the inspiration, but Herman and Marion have a lovely scene together.

This scene takes place outside Hearst castle and involves Herman and Marion going for a walk together. They discuss politics and the film industry. “Do you always just say whatever you think?” she blabbers. Herman just shrugs his shoulders and then comments on Marion’s blushing even though she denies it.

The relationship between Mankiewicz and Welles is what drives the movie and it culminates in a fiery, feverish showdown at Herman’s house. Welles trashes Herman’s belongings and the scene looks a lot like when Kane trashed Susan’s bedroom.

Maybe Mank isn’t as subversive as Fincher’s other masterpiece Fight Club (1999), which had more to say about modern-day consumerism, masculinity and materialism. This movie is rooted in the past and strives to recreate it. But there are so many amazing things in Mank - nostalgic cinematography, black-and-white direction and some superb performances. I pray Fincher gets his Best Director Oscar and Seyfried needs Supporting Actress in her bag. This is a great Hollywood fairytale.

Did you know? The final film Orson Welles contributed to before he died was 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, in which he voiced the primary antagonist, Unicron. 

Mank is available now on Netflix

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