With a David Fincher movie, you know you are going to see a well crafted work of art at the highest standards of the cinematic craft. Fincher himself championed (the rumor was part-owned) one of the first cinema grade digital cameras, the Viper, which was groundbreaking back in the aughts. With Mank, I’d also congratulate Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on some exquisite and indelible images. If you’ve ever been up to Hearst Castle for a visit and imagined what the grounds must have been like back in the days when Chaplin was a regular house guest and tickling the ivories after dinner, this film will give you some idea. Famously, newspaper mogul W.R. Hearst kept a menagerie including escaped zebras that still roam San Simeon to this day. In short, it’s really a beautiful movie.
Gary Oldman is transcendent in the role. He becomes Mank in a way that we will forever associate with someone who we hadn’t really thought that deeply about before. It’s a profound performance in its subtlety. He takes on a character under all kinds of pressure and brings levity and in turn empathy from the audience. Gary Oldman is someone else who merits our high expectations.
Perhaps oddly, Citizen Kane, the film that this one revolves around, though drummed into my brain in the countless film classes I’ve taken — and the subsequent passing on of such drumming to my own film students — has never really spoken to me. I’d rather curl up to say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Strangers on a Train. If I’m supposed to go crazy for deep focus shots, there is always Ozu (Master Japanese Director, not Greek alcohol, though I’m sure there’s an argument that can be made.)
What does strike me about Mank and Kane are the close-ups. As was done with great precision and emotional effect by Director Neil Butler in this years’ fabulous short, “Herzog & Morris”, the extreme close-up can work like a punctuation mark on an island all its own. Editorially, it doesn’t have to graphically match on action, it doesn’t have to flow seamlessly from the previous or following shot. It can just be there saying, check me out.! Just like that.
The genius here is the threading of these purely cinematic punctuations within the great theatre that, in this case Gary Oldman, brings to the role of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, a mensch who saved an entire town from the Nazi’s but is himself drowning from the bottle. In real life, he would die the year after writing the script for Citizen Kane. The film also gets into his battles with Meyer, his employer and unscrupulous if not downright evil head of MGM. Though Meyer, Wells and Hearst for that matter, are painted in caricature in order to focus more on the relationship between Mank and Hearst’s mistress, the Brooklyn actress and future philanthropist, Marion Davies, played convincingly by Amanda Seyfried.
The film also takes a stab at the sociopolitical milieu and the crushing hand of the studio and dominant political class. These sub-plots work in the sense that we can get to know Mank better in relief; as a man with a conscience, a backbone, a gift for storytelling and ultimately a disease that he couldn’t escape.
If you have Netflix, I highly recommend this adventure and if you don’t, I’m sure that this title will find its way to your library’s shelves or streaming service soon enough.