Utterly gorgeous in black & white, MANK is a cinematic treasure, with a stunning score to match. David Fincher directs a screenplay written in 1997 by his father, Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. Originally David intended that Kevin Spacey and Jodie Foster would star --- he certainly dodged a bullet there.
MANK refers to Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a Hollywood legend most known for his screenplay of CITIZEN KANE for Orson Welles (Tom Burke), which premiered in 1941. Herman was what my mother would call “a real pistol”. He’s a flaming alcoholic with a saintly wife named Sara (Tuppence Middleton), who stands by him and puts up with all his shenanigans.
Much of MANK is told via flashback after Herman has his leg broken in a car accident. John Houseman (Sam Troughton) arranges for him to convalesce at North Verde Ranch in Death Valley with a wise-cracking housekeeper, Fraulein Freida (Monika Grossman), whom he saved from Germany, and a secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who possesses extraordinary typing skills --- and for whom Susan Alexander Kane is named.
Herman is holed up here for one reason --- and one reason only --- he’s under the gun to complete the screenplay for Welles --- time and money are wasting. And all the while, “Poor Sara” is holding down the fort with their two young sons. In fact, one of the funniest lines has Herman requesting that Sara “kiss the offspring” for him.
MANK isn’t only about penning the screenplay. It also goes behind the scenes in Hollywood to expose the corruption and ugliness, especially in Herman’s earlier days in the 1930s when he worked at MGM for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). These guys were brutal, particularly in their vilification of Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), whom Herman supported in his 1934 California gubernatorial race against Mayer’s boy Frank Merriam.
Herman also has a very close relationship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her paramour --- and benefactor --- William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). And these are the very best scenes in MANK. Whenever Seyfried and Oldman are on screen together, and then throw in Dance, the movie goes to another level.
Whether strolling the grounds at San Simeon with Marion --- replete with elephants, monkeys, giraffes --- or pontificating before Hearst at his own costume dinner party, Herman/Oldman is at his best. This is an unkempt man --- a falling-down drunk --- and yet, Hearst doesn’t seem to mind. It’s fascinating, but will it be the end of him?
Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography is sublime. The romanticism and glitz of 1930s Hollywood is on full display. Dark rooms filled with smoke plumes and glamorous people populate this ode in a way only a master can imagine. And capturing a new scene with a line of text only adds to the brilliance of this homage.
But it is the disheveled Oldman and the illustrious Seyfried who carry Fincher’s film. Add to their outstanding performances the fabulous costumes by Trish Summerville and the sensational score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and you have a real contender for Best Picture.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
Gary Oldman’s distinguished career has seen him portray historical figures like Ludwig van Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald and most recently Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017) for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. His latest role may garner him a matching Oscar for playing Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s MANK.
Fincher and crew have done a marvelous job recreating the Hollywood of 1934 where much of the story takes place in flashback. And in case we didn’t realize it, Fincher superimposes “flashback” on the screen every time the movie shifts back from 1940. The fashions and especially the automobiles harken back to that era with the viewer becoming totally immersed in the scenery.
Oldman’s performance is truly Oscar worthy, portraying the legendary screenwriter tasked with writing the script for CITIZEN KANE to be directed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who also will cast himself in the lead. Mank, as he was called by his many friends and associates, spends much time doing the work bedridden due to a cast on his broken right leg suffered in a car accident. His secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), threatens to quit at one point, but the heavy-drinking Mank convinces her to stay.
Actress Marion Davies, a close ally of Mank, is played by Amanda Seyfried. Davies is a staunch supporter of Mank but an embarrassingly drunk interlude by Mank at a dinner hosted by William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) at the latter’s sprawling San Simeon compound proves too much for Davies. She also happens to be Hearst’s long-time companion despite being about 40 years his junior. Seyfried is magnetic as the bubbly Davies.
The main fascination of MANK for me are the frequent references to the Hollywood elite of that era and the interplay amongst them. Key portrayals besides those previously mentioned include Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), John Houseman (Sam Troughton), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), Eddie Cantor (Derek Petropolis) and Herman’s brother Joe Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey).
Of special note is that Fincher based his film on the screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher. The story of Herman Mankiewicz was originally supposed to reach the big screen in the late 1990s until son David resurrected it for release now.
For further authenticity Fincher shot his movie in glorious black & white. Just as Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE eschewed color for
black & white, MANK would decidedly lose some effectiveness if Fincher had chosen color.
The rapid-fire dialogue in this film practically begs for a second viewing. And as splendid as the ensemble cast is Goldman’s stunning portrayal is foremost. As for Fincher, he has helmed some of the most iconic movies of recent times. Despite titles like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, GONE GIRL and FIGHT CLUB, Oscar victory has eluded him.
Although CITIZEN KANE is undoubtedly Herman J. Mankiewicz’s crowning achievement (he and Welles shared the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay in 1942), he was co-nominated in the same category in 1943 for THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES although this is not mentioned in MANK.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!