When you watch a biographical movie about an artist, the drama of creativity — the writing of “In Cold Blood,” the invention of funk — tends to be front and center. But in “Mank,” David Fincher’s raptly intricate and enticing movie about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the fabled screenwriter of ’30s and ’40s Hollywood, and how he wrote the script for “Citizen Kane,” the act of creation is just one of many things that flow by. That’s part of what gives the movie its uniquely atmospheric, at times tumultuous tone of you-are-there authenticity. “Mank” is a tale of Old Hollywood that’s more steeped in Old Hollywood — its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory — than just about any movie you’ve seen, and the effect is to lend it a dizzying time-machine splendor.
In the opening sequence, 1930s cars tool along a California country roadway, kicking up dust in a way that’s captured with supreme luster by Eric Messerschmidt’s exquisitely retro deep-focus black-and-white cinematography. The cars arrive at North Verde Ranch in Victorville, about 90 miles from Los Angeles, where Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who’s nursing a broken leg, and who is a weary, bedraggled, washed-up drunk who nevertheless speaks in a more wryly amused manner than anyone in Hollywood, will spend the next 12 weeks lying in bed in a cozy getaway cottage, under the supervision of John Houseman (Sam Troughton), churning out the script that will become “Citizen Kane,” the greatest movie ever made (or, at least, some think so — I’m one).
Mankiewicz, known to all as Mank, is a former New York journalist and critic who held court at the Algonquin Round Table, and the way Oldman plays him, with a delectably crumpled egomania, his wit has a wonderful droll compulsiveness about it. When he’s drunk, the booze is like truth serum — a way of keeping himself comfortably numb, and also honest. But even when he’s just hungover (he’s usually at least that), he’s a human ticker-tape machine who speaks in outrageously orotund sentences — the more inebriated the more complete, since he’s compelled to follow his train of thought to the bitter end. Nothing interrupts the acerbic monologue in his head.
Listening to a corrupt studio chief make a fraudulently “sincere” speech about salary cuts to his employees, Mank remarks, “Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen,” the irony pulling the quip in two directions like taffy. “Why is it,” asks Mankiewicz, “that when Houseman edits, everyone ends up speaking like a constipated Oxford don?” We could listen to Mank all day, because what he’s reacting to is the castle-in-the-air unreality of the world around him, where actors are gods onscreen and indentured servants off, where writers like himself get paid $1,500 a week to sit around and drink, gamble, and toss off cardboard scripts (or maybe even, on occasion, a good one), and where the secret engine of the Dream Factory is power.
Mank is at North Verde Ranch because Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the 24-year-old boy-wonder director of “Citizen Kane,” brought in by RKO Pictures and given carte blanche to make any film he wants, has arranged for him to be there. Welles has personally sought out the brilliant but damaged Mank; he wants the first draft of a screenplay in 90 days. So Mank sets to work, scrawling out the words himself or dictating them to Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), the pert British stenographer and hand-holder who’s been assigned to him. For a while, the movie uses script cues as titles, like “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS — DAY — 1930 (FLASHBACK),” a device that indicates that “Mank” is going to hop around its main character as playfully as “Citizen Kane” did. It will tell his story by telling the story that surrounds him.
We leap back to 1930, when Mank, at the estate of William Randolph Hearst, sees a Western being shot and forms a fast friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the sweetly brittle starlet who’s filming a scene where she’s being burned at the stake. Mank uses his gift of gab to open doors, and when he chats with Hearst (Charles Dance), the newspaper tycoon who is Marion’s sugar daddy, and who is such a wealthy force that he’s helping to bankroll MGM, he earns himself a seat at the dinner table next to the old man. There are scenes in the writers room at Paramount, where Mank and future legends like Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), S.J. Perelman (Jack Romano), and Mank’s handsome brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) spend all day entertaining each other, until they’re called into a meeting with David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), an owlish tough nut they know how to bamboozle.
As the film moves into the ’30s, and finds Mank hobnobbing with folks like the MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (played with a magnetic blunt-witted scowl by Arliss Howard) and his youthful right-hand smoothie, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), it takes up themes that have an eerie parallel with today: the do-or-die struggle of movie studios to win people back to theaters during the Depression; the 1934 Democratic gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair, the man-of-the-people writer who’s presented as a sort of Bernie Sanders of his day. Mank and his fellow scribes are ardent backers of Sinclair, but the Hollywood powers view him as a socialist they’ll do anything to shut down. The battle turns dark when Mank, with one flippant remark, inadvertently gives the studio the idea to create fake-news newsreels that wind up torpedoing Sinclair’s campaign.
In “Mank,” even the darkness has a high sheen, as in a masterful drawing-room cocktail scene at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon that carries a luscious gossipy voyeuristic intrigue. The performances are sharp, witty, and lived-in, and several of the actors have an indelible resonance — notably Amanda Seyfried, who plays Marion with the Brooklyn kewpie-doll sparkle of a woman who likes herself but knows just how the game is played (the difference between Marion and the “Kane” character Mankiewicz based on her, the talentless and despondent Susan Alexander, is so marked it’s the essence of creative license with a tinge of personal betrayal), and Charles Dance, who endows Hearst with a hauntingly sinister humanity.
As the film goes on, we start to see how everything in it feeds into “Citizen Kane” — not just Mankiewicz’s access to Hearst and Marion, but the politics of the Hollywood image factory, the theme of idealism vs. power, and Mank’s own alcoholic cynicism, which culminates in a dinner party in which he drunkenly self-destructs while tossing off what is, in essence, the pitch for “Citizen Kane.” (In his sozzled hallucination, it’s the life story of Hearst meets “Don Quixote.”) Mank has hollowed himself out, yet in a weird way he has to reach the point where he has nothing to lose in order to write a script that’s bold enough to undercut the fantasy machinery of Hollywood.
Written by Jack Fincher, who is David Fincher’s (late) father, “Mank” is a lusciously evocative, verbally sharp-angled movie that’s never less than engrossing. Yet given that it’s about the creation of “Citizen Kane,” there’s a way that it’s almost more inside baseball than it needed to be. And that could limit its appeal. Why does a movie that devotes 20 minutes to Upton Sinclair not include a single scene in which we get to see Mank and Welles brainstorming the idea for “Citizen Kane”? Whose decision was it to make a movie about Hearst in the first place? Who thought up the visionary “News on the March” fake documentary?
From “Mank,” you’d think the answers were “Mank, Mank, and Mank.” (You’d also think that Welles objected, in an over-my-dead-body way, to the idea of Mankiewicz receiving screen credit.) The film buys more or less completely into the notion proffered by Pauline Kael’s exuberant but problematic 1971 essay “Raising Kane” — that “Kane,” in concept and writing, was all Mankiewicz, and Welles provided the fancy-camera-angle showmanship. But sorry, that was always an extremely overstated mythology. And it’s a nagging flaw in a movie that immerses us in the Dream Factory but never fully nails how the dream of “Kane” came to be.
“Mank” is in selected theaters starting Nov. 13 and on Netflix starting Dec. 4.