“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”
An impression of the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is certainly left in David Fincher’s Mank, a celebratory ode to classic Hollywood, charged with venomous criticism. Returning to feature filmmaking after a seven-year hiatus, Fincher’s monochrome reverie of 1930s L.A. is a slick and authentic vision, even if it is one steeped in self-indulgence.
Written by Fincher’s late father in the 1990s, the film reassesses the life of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he battles to complete the script and retain authorship of the story itself. Separated by a properly formatted title card that proceeds many scenes, the film feels less like several long sequences and more like multiple static vignettes, bouncing back and forth through Kane’s production timeline with a seemingly random direction. Flashback’s to a bygone bubbling era studio system are filled with life and movie magic, tailing walking, talking business meetings through winding corridors and live productions. Though, in the present, Gary Oldman’s Mankiewicz is cynical and dishevelled, lying in his bed, delirious or drunk as he croaks together the screenplay line-by-line.
To view it like a dream is really quite apt. Floating around the Hollywood heights, omitting large chunks of time, Fincher’s depiction of this lost era looks and feels authentic but is emotionally distant, like peering into a dream that’s not yours. Oldman’s emphatic performance in the lead role is certainly absorbing, but it also leaves little room for sympathy. In the limited window in which we have to view his life, he appears little more than a struggling, drunken cynic. Rather, it is Amanda Seyfried’s supporting role as Marion Davies that grounds Mank with some sort of humanity, a heartful depiction of the sparky real-life actresses that crucially requests sympathy.
Powerfully written, Jack Fincher’s script is a wormhole to the 1930s, textured with gorgeous dialogue that feels often too well crafted, as actors stumble over overtly academic, theatrical speeches. It certainly recalls the script work of classic Hollywood, where screenplays were designed like novels and performed with similar dramatisation, though it is vacant of the soul and emotion necessary to invite its audience closer. We are passive observers rather than bystanders to the story at hand.
Behind the curtain, a clockwork production team turns the crank of time to accurately rewind time and present a joyous recreation of classic Hollywood to modern Netflix audiences. Production designers Donald Graham Burt and Jan Pascale ignite the Paramount Pictures studio once more, creating a hub of fiery activity in which there is not a coffee cup out of place. Together with costume designer Trish Summerville, and of course, the cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, the vibrant energy of Los Angeles, Hollywood, is lovingly recreated in slick monochrome. Mank feels in itself a product of the film studios it depicts.
Scathing and cynical in academic performance, though beautiful in artistic form, David Fincher’s love letter, laced with P.S. criticism to a bygone Hollywood era, is fascinating and joyous to witness, even if it is too dense to entirely absorb.