Media companies produce “fake news” to sink progressive political campaigns. An unprecedented economic downfall puts Hollywood in a state of crisis. A writer has to force himself to be creative and productive while stuck in his house for months. Is this the 1930s or 2020?
“Mank,” the biopic of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz—now playing at Kendall Square Cinema and coming to Netflix Dec. 4—is startling in its contemporary relevance, especially when you consider that director David Fincher has been trying to get this screenplay (written by his late father, Jack) produced for nearly 20 years.
Gary Oldman plays the title character, and if it’s a little weird in theory that a Tory who The Trial of the Chicago 7,” it’s interesting how two of Netflix’s biggest awards contenders this year celebrate explicitly leftist heroes.is playing a Jewish socialist, it’s certainly a testament to his chameleonic talent and professionalism as an actor that he completely disappears into the part. The film’s politics are clearly closer to Mank’s than to Oldman’s; between this and “
The framing device in “Mank” centers around the writing of “Citizen Kane” and naturally deals with the controversies surrounding the now-consensus pick for the greatest movie of all time. However, it’s not really accurate to say that the film is about the making of “Citizen Kane.” (Though if you haven’t seen “Citizen Kane,” you should absolutely watch it before “Mank.”) Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke) barely shows up at all; his role pretty much lines up with Fincher’s controversial Pauline Kael-esque , but it’s a tertiary concern at most.
The really interesting stuff is in the flashbacks, following Mank’s work in and gradual disillusionment with the studio system. It’s here he crosses paths with figures who would inspire “Citizen Kane”: newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), his actress mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and MGM head Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard). These scenes are jam-packed with old Hollywood insider references, but the stories told here are compelling and relevant even if you don’t get all the in-jokes. At the center of it all is an all-too-relevant tragedy: the way the studios worked to crush Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California (and, yes, that’s actually Bill Nye the Science Guy playing Sinclair in his one on-screen cameo).
Not only is this “Mank” a film about 1930s Hollywood, but it does an amazing job feeling like a film from the era it’s about. From the opening “Netflix International Presents” title, it’s clear Fincher was having a blast recreating this style. Erik Messerschmidt’s black-and-white cinematography and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ jazzy score stand out immediately, but even small details like reel change-markers and the subtleties of the dialogue mixing call back to a long-distant era of filmmaking. The one stylistic anachronism is that it’s shot in widescreen, a format that didn’t really take off until the ‘50s, but who cares when it looks this good?
Give or take a rapturous response to yet-to-be-released films like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Soul,” it feels safe to peg “Mank” as the Oscar frontrunner in what might be the strangest year for movies ever. In a year when many are spending more time in front of screens than ever and yet are desperately missing the big screen, there’s something genuinely refreshing about a new release that’s this much of a movie.