Like Orson Welles, David Fincher is never one to do anything in half measures.
From the very opening reel - complete with cigarette burn and all - the idea is to flood the senses with the past. Every room is painted in smoke and hard lighting. Gary Oldman's puffed-up, alchie screenwriter fires off witty rejoinders like a Tommy gun. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor's score lilts and caresses every scene. There is a sumptuousness to every moment of 'Mank', right down to the flicks of dirt on the print.
Yet, for all this attentiveness to creating mood and tone, there's a lingering sense that 'Mank' might be exactly the kind of movie that Herman J. Mankiewicz himself would have eviscerated. Nine nominations, no wins. Probably Best Picture, Best Actor for Gary Oldman, definitely Best Actress for Amanda Seyfried, and down the line for Cinematography, Production Design, and Score.
Written by Jack Fincher, David Fincher's father, there are more than a few beats and riffs that feel like they've been foisted upon the story to make it relevant to our current troubles, including a subplot about "phoney newsreels", how Upton Sinclair was branded a communist in the Californian gubernatorial race, the creative process being more about labour than art, and a few needling barbs at the major studios like Paramount and Universal. There's an entire scene devoted to trying to rationalise movie studios dealing with Nazi Germany, no doubt a clear swipe at movie studios and their dealings with China.
As like the titular character, 'Mank' is smug and self-satisfied, yet you're never not entertained and enthralled by it. The razor-sharp barbs, the loquacious humour, how it tumbles back and forth like a drunkard's stagger in time, you can tell that David Fincher has been biding his time to make this, and he's going to enjoy every moment of it. Like of all of his work, there's not a scene, a camera angle, or a line of dialogue that he hasn't given careful consideration to.
Even positioning Orson Welles into the story merely as a drop-in character, only ever heard over the phone or, in one crucial scene, swishing into Mank's cove with his trademark swept cape and proceeds to loudly and dramatically berate Mank.
Gary Oldman knows, deep in his veins, how to play a role like this with ease, not just as a recovering alcoholic himself, but as someone who has lived their lives intensely and fully, and their work has consumed them. For all his swaggering around parties, Mank's a workaholic. He's not cynical, but rather that he's a keen observer of the cynicism that surrounds him.
Charles Dance, always a reliable performer in any role he's given, manages to play William Randolph Hearst with a surprising amount of restraint. There isn't a single hint of Welles, or Kane, in him. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hearst in this is much less the booming, boisterous boaster, but far more considered and reserved. It's only ever Mank that seems to make the speeches, very often with Hearst quietly taking it in. There is, however, one scene between the two where Dance's performance leaps out and we see in it the real, terrifying power Hearst had.
Amanda Seyfried is fascinating as Marion Davies, giving what is undoubtedly the best performance of her career to date. It's layered in a way that's not immediately apparent, but she more than capably holds her own in scenes with Oldman, Dance, and just about every other actor in the movie. Arliss Howard is a fascinating choice to play Louis B. Mayer, while Tom Burke's performance as Orson Welles captures the histronics and the ego so often neglected in other portrayals.
As much as Fincher's work through the years has been about delving into the human psyche, and how our world is impacted and shaped by it, 'Mank' feels more like a passion project, something that doesn't exactly fit into his other works with the same neatness and cleanliness as others. Compared to 'The Social Network' or 'Zodiac', it's much less accessible. It's not that it's sentimental, but it does try and grasp at storytelling itself, swaying back and forth between truth and fiction, glancing at us, every so often reminding us that we're all either the ones in a story or the ones telling a story.
'Mank' arrives on Netflix on December 4th.