Getting to step into the glamorous world of Hollywood is a dream for many and, in David Fincher’s Mank (2020), a Netflix Original, this dream becomes a reality. It follows the semi-biographical story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Mank) as he navigates the turbulent world of 1930s Hollywood and undertakes the writing of his infamous masterpiece, Citizen Kane (1941) – more commonly attributed to Orson Welles.
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Read our interview with actor Ferdinand Kingsley, who stars in Mank as MGM executive Irving Thalberg, where he discusses what it was like working on the film, his training and background in theatre, and what it was like growing up as the son of famous parents.
Mank takes place across two separate timelines and frequently shifts back and forth between the two. The film opens in 1940 when, after a car accident, Mank is bed-bound and dictates the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941), with the help of Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) acting as scribe and confidante.
The ‘Old Boys Club of 1930s Hollywood
The flashbacks take us to the 1930s, predominantly 1934, where we are completely immersed in Hollywood’s old boys club. We follow Mank through film pitches fueled by liquor and cigars, meetings with studio executives and rendezvous with media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his elite inner circle. It is widely believed that Citizen Kane (1941) is based on Hearst, and this becomes a major source of conflict in the latter half of the film.
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The eponymous Herman Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, is our deeply flawed antihero with many vices. From his alcoholism to high stakes gambling habit, he is the archetype of the tortured artist. Despite the fact that he is deeply unlikeable, we are made to root for him, to sympathise with him, as he works tirelessly to complete the screenplay that would become Citizen Kane (1941). His rebellious and unpredictable ways find him under almost constant supervision, from the German nurse hired to aid his recovery, to the producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) sent by Welles to keep a watchful eye on Mank’s progress with the script.
Although Gary Oldman is most definitely the star of the show, featuring in nearly every second of the film, Mank also benefits from a spectacular cast of supporting actors.
Oldman provides an excellent performance in this role, embodying the cynicism and abrasiveness of Mank while also offering glimpses of vulnerability. There is a clear sense that time is running out for Mank; he is continually plagued by the feeling that he “should’ve done something by now”, and therefore this screenplay must be a success. With the benefit of hindsight, the audience is aware of the fate of the film, but for Mank, this is yet another high stakes venture.
Jack Fincher’s Mank Screenplay
For Fincher, too, the making of Mank (2020) was a risk and a labour of love. The original screenplay was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, and therefore clearly a story that he was committed to seeing played out on screen. A film dedicated to the lesser known, and some would argue lesser appreciated, mind behind Citizen Kane is quite niche – perhaps even esoteric – and not one that guarantees success. However, executed by legendary director David Fincher, responsible for such films as Gone Girl (2014), The Social Network (2010), and Seven (1995), it has become exactly that.
From the opening credit sequence, it is apparent that you are being plunged deep into a Hollywood classic. Shot beautifully in black-and-white, with screenplay slug lines marking periodic flashbacks, and fake cigarette burns to indicate film reel changes; it mimics the films of the time and draws on the recent trend of nostalgia for the Hollywood of the past such as Once upon a time in Hollywood (2019) and Hollywood (2020).
Amanda Seyfried, in my opinion, plays her best role to date as Marion Davies, MGM actress and Hearst’s much younger mistress.
Mank, however, steers away from romanticising this so-called “Golden Age”, revealing the power of the film industry, and what can happen when this power is abused. The film explores MGM’s involvement in the 1934 race for governor of California, when they produced a series of false newsreels, funded by Hearst, and played them before their films. These newsreels featured out-of-work actors pretending to be regular members of the public endorsing the Republican candidate, Frank Merriam, and contributed to his ultimate victory over Democrat Upton Sinclair. This precursor to “Fake News” had very real consequences, and revealed how easily manipulated the general public can be when presented with information from a supposedly trusted source.
In the film, Mank hears one of these interviews played on the radio and recognises the voice of an actress he has worked with, “I’d know that whisky gargle anywhere”. This is confirmed when Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) confides in Mank; he directed the newsreels and now has growing fears about their potential implications.
This is where the film gains pace, having spent much of the first act introducing prominent figures of the film industry and providing context to a wider audience who may not have knowledge of MGM or even Citizen Kane itself. The second act is where we get to the crux of the action.
MGM and The Great Depression
The film successfully provides commentary on the divisive political climate of the time, drawing upon the backdrop of the Great Depression and the build up to WW2. In the flashbacks to 1934 we see a gathering hosted by Hearst where the burgeoning threat of Hitler is discussed, and largely dismissed, by the powerful men in the room. The film draws parallels between the German dictator and MGM executive Louis B Mayer himself. This is most notable when Mayer gives a rousing speech asking employees to take a pay cut in order to keep the studio afloat during the Great Depression. Mayer himself, and many of the studio’s top earners, were obviously not subjected to these cuts.
If you are a lover of films and the history of the industry, which I’m sure most people who have read this far will be, then this is absolutely one to watch.
Although Gary Oldman is most definitely the star of the show, featuring in nearly every second of the film, Mank (2020) also benefits from a spectacular cast of supporting actors.
Amanda Seyfried in her strongest performance to date?
From Arliss Howard to Ferdinand Kingsley, each actor provides a sensitive performance of the real people they portray without impersonation or mimicry. This role could very easily have been played as the stereotypical ‘ditsy’ blonde, but Seyfried brings complexity and great humour to the character with her New York accent and dramatic flare.
Her intimate friendship with Mank is built upon their shared feeling of being outsiders in their social circles and within the industry. They are two of the most authentic and grounded characters in the film, seemingly everyday people who stumbled into a bizarre world. In them, we see how the power and fantasy of Hollywood can be achieved, but not taken for granted.
If you are a lover of films and the history of the industry, which I’m sure most people who have read this far will be, then David Fincher’s Mank is absolutely one to watch.
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images courtesy of Netflix