Mank review: It’s counterfactual nonsense but it’s spectacular

There’s much to admire in David Fincher’s new Netflix film about Hollywood’s heyday

Gary Oldman plays screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz in Mank, directed by David Fincher.

Film Title: Mank

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 131 min

Fri, Dec 4, 2020, 05:30

   

There’s a great deal to admire about David Fincher’s new film. Working from a screenplay written by his father, Jack, the Seven director recreates the golden age of Hollywood with big-hitting monologues (every actor gets a scene), Erik Messerschmidt’s sumptuous monochrome cinematography, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s uncharacteristically lush score, and irresistible period details.

Care to see a subplot concerning the corporate conspiracy that featured in socialist muckraker Upton Sinclair’s bid to become the governor of California? Of course you do.

Movie fans are likely to swoon over cameo appearances from Greta Garbo, Josef Von Sternberg, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis and Clark Gable (Tom Pelphrey’s Joseph L Mankiewicz is especially delightful). The genius and deviousness of the studio system is laid bare in political and social tussles featuring such major historical players as Louis B Mayer and David O Selznick.

But even swooning movie fans will recognise that Mank’s central conceit is the same old hooey once peddled by Pauline Kael in her 1971 book-length essay, Raising Kane. Mank, like Kael, postulates that screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz was the author of Citizen Kane, a theory that has been subsequently debunked and, well, demolished.

Watching this luxuriant origin story for Orson Welles’ 1941 film is therefore not unlike watching Oliver Stone’s JFK. It’s spectacular! It’s a tour du force! It’s counterfactual nonsense!

Screenwriter

Fincher, nevertheless, wants us to smirk – or possibly cringe – at the early scene in which Gary Oldman staggers on to an MGM film set as hungover (probably still drunk) screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Mank for short) and Louis B Mayer asks who he is, to which Irving Thalberg replies: “Just a writer.”

The use of screenplay slug lines to establish time and place – “EXT. VICTORVILLE — GUEST RANCH — DAY — 1940” – add to the reverence accorded to the writer. The screenplay, however, for all its knowledge and many tricks, struggles to accommodate its expansive research. The self-consciously hard-boiled dialogue adds to the project’s meta-textual clout and jollies the film along, even when characters introduce themselves with job descriptions or pullquotes from Wikipedia entries.

Too often those onscreen overshare to a pathological degree. (Do we really need to know so much about the husband of Mank’s secretary?) The central conflict between Mank and Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the boy wonder summoned to Hollywood on the back of his wildly successful career in radio and theatre, is curiously downplayed.

A subplot concerning Mank’s friendship with showgirl-turned-starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her sugar daddy William Randolph Hearst (an imperious Charles Dance) is as fascinating – and surprisingly sympathetic – as it is arresting. A giddily unhinged sequence, requiring some 100 takes, drunkenly shuffles into Heart-of-Darkness territory.

The dream factory is a nightmare. Whoever could have guessed? Everyone?

Mank is on Netflix from December 4th