I googled “When Was Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema” and came up with the years spanning 1930-45, so my clickbait title is actually accurate. Mank, director David Fincher’s latest towering achievement, summons the Dream Factory’s ghosts of the pasts in vivid black and white. While playing with shadows and light are fine and dandy; it’s the three dimensional portrayals in Mank that kept me riveted.
Based on Jack Fincher’s (David Fincher’s late father) screenplay, Mank centers on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a master of his domain during the early 1930s. He held court over such scribes as Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), Charles MacArthur (John Churchill) and George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro) during his studio heydays. Mank even helped land younger brother Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey) a job at MGM.
Joseph Mankiewicz would ultimately have the bigger career as an A-list director (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives, and the highly overlooked People Will Talk), but this movie is about the co-writer behind Citizen Kane. Herman Mankiewicz’s hard living (he was an alcoholic and a gambler) ultimately lead to his death at 55, and Mank doesn’t shy away from detailing his addictions.
The obvious play for the movie, if it was in lesser hands, was to shoot a loving ode to Hollywood and the making of Citizen Kane, as seen through the eyes of the scribe. The battle for Citizen Kane has been documented before, most notably in Pauline Kael’s book of essays Raising Kane.
Instead, we are treated to an up close and personal look at what drove Herman Mankiewicz to pen what many believe is the greatest movie of all-time. Mank’s friendship with actress Marion Davis (a scene stealing and awards worthy performance from Amanda Seyfried) and her mate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) is a union carved by a simple twist of fate. These bonds would lead to Mank creating what he believed was his best work to date. Crafting transcendent art can, along with destroying one’s personal health, may also rupture relationships.
Lily Collins co-stars as Rita Alexander, a typist and assistant who is faithfully by Mank’s side as he pen the script in a remote desert home in Victorville. Far away from his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) and the industry,a convalescing Mank (he was injured in a car accident) is under the gun to complete the screenplay.
There is a “who’s who” of of Hollywood figures (including Orson Welles, played by Tom Burke) who are interwoven into Mankiewicz’s world, and most of them provided with vivid detail (even if their screen time is short and sweet). Though Fincher has been lauded for years for his technical prowess and his matery of digital filmmaking, he’s often looked as a bonafide storyteller. With help from his father and an engaged cast and crew, Mank will hopefully put those considerable skill sets into the spotlight.
Some may say that Mank’s in-depth look at a writer in the 1930s and early 40s would be too “inside baseball,” but that’s simply an insult to movie buffs of all ages. A writer’s struggles with the system, as well as the battle with his or her inner demons, is an oft-told tale, and Mank should appeal to viewers in search of a insightful and, at times, rousing narrative.
The only stretch of believability is having a sixtysomething Gary Oldman play a 43-year-old screenwriter. Oldman, however, absolutely disappears into the role, and in this case age is nothing but a number. Both he and Seyfried will be remembered come awards time, but most importantly he delivers one of his most compelling performances (it’s right up there, for me, with Immortal Beloved and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
Although I’m a fan of movies from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” Mank proves there is so much more I need to learn about the life of Marion Davies, Louis B. Mayer and even Herman Mankiewicz (I have The Pride of the Yankees on this week’s watch list!). That said, Mank is not cinema as a history lesson. It’s old-fashioned moviemaking at its finest, and with David Fincher at the helm, black and white has never looked more colorful.
Mank hits Netflix December 4!
Mank Rating: 5 out of 5 *****