2020, R, 131 min. Directed by David Fincher. Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Tuppence Middleton, Lily Collins, Leven Rambin, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Toby Leonard Moore, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 20, 2020

"Who was that again?" "Just a writer."

It starts as a rat-a-tat screwball comedy of the kind no one writes any more. Naturalism is overrated in Mank, a very different look at the creation of Citizen Kane. Obviously, something new had to be found to be said about Orson Welles' constant fights with the studio even after they give him free rein to create the era-defining movie that eventually hamstrung the studio career of radio's golden boy. So David Fincher (working from a heavily-reworked script originally drafted by and still credited to his father, Jack) looks elsewhere on the back lot for his latest iteration of the contentious creation of a masterpiece.

It's 1940 and enter, from stage left, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the former international correspondent turned Algonquin Round Table survivor turned Hollywood script doctor known more generally as Mank. On crutches after a car wreck, he's holed up in a house in Victorville, hired to turn the vague idea of Kane into something like a script. "Write what you know," he is instructed, an edict that will turn out to be both prescient and catastrophic.

The gist of the story is what we've seen before, in documentaries like The Battle Over Citizen Kane and dramas such as RKO 281: that Mank (Oldman, sozzled and jaundiced) and Welles (The Souvenir's Burke, catching more of the filmmaker's bloviating fury than most depictions) make a thinly-veiled biopic of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Dance, all reserved fury). The script posits a flirtation between Mank and Marion Davies (Seyfried), Hearst's lover and the supposed inspiration for Kane's mistress/second wife, Susan. Their zinger-filled exchanges are purely platonic – Mank would never stray from "poor Sara" (Middleton), as everyone calls her – but they're kindred spirits of a sort, the indulged entertainers, quick with a quip smart enough to know, relish, and bristle at their place in affairs. As the narrative flicks back and forth between the inception, execution, and final plaudits for Mank's work, their relationship is the fulcrum.

But this isn't just about some double act. Turn around too fast in Mank's ill-fitting suit and you'll hit a dozen starlets and power players of greater fame or infamy than Davies' eclipsed celebrity status, or Mank's still-contested credits. Fincher's real point is that Hollywood is an inherently political beast: not just the politics of the studios, but the actual political engagement of the studios and those who own them. In that way, Mank is about as much about making Citizen Kane as Zodiac is the story of hunting down a serial killer. If Don DeLillo had studied Hollywood rather than baseball, he'd have written Mank. If James Ellroy had dug into studio internal memos instead of seedy tabloid rags and declassified CIA documents, he'd have written Mank. It took Fincher to commit this quiet vivisection of Tinseltown, and its interplay with power, its insiders and outsiders. Everyone has dirty hands, everyone has intentions and ambitions, everyone is trapped, and money and power will out.

The issues crystalize over cocktails in San Simeon, Hearst's rambling castle that became the inspiration for Kane's Xanadu. Plutocrats and starlets discuss the upcoming 1934 election, when Republicans became convinced that California was about to become a Communist hotbed, and that Germany's descent into fascism was just a temporary blip (any of this sound familiar?). It's unclear whether this scene was in those long-gestating earlier drafts, but they would not have had the resonance they do right now. Swap Upton Sinclair for Bernie Sanders, Hitler for Trump, Louis B. Mayer for any executive furloughing staff and cutting salaries because of the economy, and the dialogue would hit like a hammer on the Sunday morning politics shows.

Of course, Fincher never has to make this explicit. His lure is the appeal of a story from the Golden Age of cinema, and in his recreation of the look and feel of a 1940s film. It's more than simply shooting in black-and-white. It's angles and glow, it's the sound, the hum of tape, the artificiality of sets and the dusty realism of locations. It's as layered and nuanced as Fincher's recreation of the culture and power structures within which Kane was made, and through which Mank labors, the embittered, drunken, self-loathing idealist who manages to get a few bites in before his masters yank his chain.

"Write hard. Aim low," Mank is told. Instead, Fincher filmed low, aimed for the brain, and hit a deadly shot.

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Mank, David Fincher, Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Tuppence Middleton, Lily Collins, Leven Rambin, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Toby Leonard Moore, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane

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