Arts and Entertainment

“Mank” Paints a Beautifully Deceptive Portrait of Classical Cinema

David Fincher’s “Mank” is a visually beautiful, yet almost deceptive metastory, critiquing the 1930s Golden Age of Hollywood and deeper power dynamics through the story behind the creation of the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Annie Lam

“Mank,” David Fincher’s 11th feature film, offers a dazzling glimpse into the 1930s Golden Age of Hollywood. There’s a seductive nostalgia of the widescreen noir, filled with smoky silhouettes and inky blacks; the undertones of a bygone Mid-Atlantic accent echoing off invisible walls; the cigar smoke spiraling, the lights flashing, and the champagne flowing. The velvety monochrome on-screen seems off, however; there’s the faint imitation of cigarette burns, the faux scratches of an unchanged, old-timey reel, and the crisp definition of a digital camera.

There’s almost an artificiality to modern nostalgia; a strange kind of self-awareness past sentimentalism. This is precisely the state of “Mank,” the story of the creation of a screenplay, yet fueled with an acerbic, pointed criticism toward old Hollywood and American power structures.

Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) came to Hollywood in the 1920s with the confidence and credentials of an established screenwriter. By the 1940s, however, his alcoholism and self-destructive behavior wore his career prospects thin; that is, until he met Orson Wells: the 24-year-old director, actor, and producer (what else!) who proposed a 90-day stay in relative isolation at Verde Ranch, California. There was a film to be shot, a screenplay to be written—and full carte blanche for Mank.

This is the making of the screenplay behind “Citizen Kane” (1941), a film virtually ubiquitous in pop culture and arguably the crème de la crème through a century-and-a-half of cinema. Following the death of the newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane (based on William Randolph Hearst, billionaire media mogul and founder of Hearst Communications), reporters begin to investigate the meaning of his dying words “Rosebud,” but instead slowly unearth a fascinating portrait of the rise and fall of a complex man. “Citizen Kane” presents masterful visual artistry and notable techniques, all together with skill, flair, and acumen—the creation of an eternal masterpiece.

“Mank” provides a glimpse into the process of creating "Citizen Kane,” with the substance in the film expanding on Mank’s experiences and simmering antagonisms through various flashbacks to the 1930s, all ideas which he conveys in his almost Goliath-length script. Mank battles booze, the Hearst family, studio demands, and through it all reaches an epiphany of the greater sense as he’s closeted away in the Ranch, drifting in and out of almost hallucinatory flashbacks.

Fincher’s film is wrapped in some of the most gorgeous filmmaking craft imaginable. The entirety of the film was shot on a monochrome sensor camera—no color version of the film exists. Trish Summerville's costumes and production designer Donald Graham create a dazzling blend of 1930s to early ‘40s glamour and grit. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score flips from high-tempo jazz to gravelly undertones of the retro, monaural sound design. Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography is exquisite, with a radiant, almost dream-like black-and-white contour and at times depicts the bold, expressionist style of “Citizen Kane” with flashy montages and playful swings of the camera. The high contrast and chiaroscuro lighting give the film an almost Renaissance appearance, coupled with the seductive thrall of the noir nostalgia.

Between “Citizen Kane” and “Mank,” there are structural boldness and temporal fragmentation. The storylines weave together characters, themes, timelines, and plot threads to a smooth entirety; each transition feels somehow preordained. In “Mank,” the lengthy flashbacks to the 1930s almost serve as an alternate tense; we meet actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and other characters from Mank’s memory, told with a teasing, yet magnetic wit.

The most fascinating parts of “Mank,” however, come from a darker internal story. Deception is at the center of Fincher’s film—the gorgeous visuals, coupled with lush nostalgia, divert the viewer from its underlying messages. The film has inevitably painful material to contemplate in our era of corona lockdown, media moguls, anti-socialist rhetoric, and (yes) electoral chaos. Flashbacks weave back to the 1930s, with the Great Depression and theater closures; a gubernatorial election takes stage, and wealthy Hollywood elites compete for reigning influence.

The wealthy elites move in the same ring of conservative power players; Hearst is its king, and Mank is its unknowingly addled court jester. The leftist Mank is stranded in the midst of a suffocating machine—his morals have cost him his soul, and he’s reduced to alcoholism and sardonic laughter. He is left a small sideshow, a puppet by the strings of those who have cast their ideals aside for a steady paycheck, and a seat on the plump, embroidered thrones of Heart’s estate.

“Mank” isn’t only a metastory on film, however. Today, Hearst Communications is just one media company among other powerful corporations. Think of Rupert Murdoch (CEO of News Corp, which owns Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and more) or Michael Bloomberg (CEO of Bloomberg L.P.) and other individuals with a similar breadth of power. Think about the interplay between the media, elections, and the powerful; they monopolize off each other, practically creating an unbreakable dominion. Part of Mank’s journey is the gradual realization of the calamity of factors beyond his control and the sheer, terrifying power leveraged by the few who can use it.

The heart of “Mank” ultimately lies in the soul of the artist. “Mank” is almost wearily in love with the thorny craft of artistic collaboration, as all the inner parts of the film only titled “America” (“Citizen Kane” is never mentioned directly) come together in a sort of symphonic chaos. Yet this collaboration is equally about Mank himself; if he wants to bring something truly valuable to the process, he must grow as a person, then as an artist.

At the end of “Mank,” there’s hardly anything to critique. Fincher is meticulous: the score, the production design, the cinematography, and the editing are nearly flawless; the film is a thoughtful love letter to classic Hollywood, that is, first dipped in venom—its subplots eerily resonate with current issues—and yet there’s still something missing.

The film lacks an emotional center. When the characters argue, there’s never a sense that anything has been lost. The characters shine brightest not in conversation, but in monologues, or in self-definition. There’s an attempt at an emotional punch and an almost anticlimactic ending that never lands quite right. While “Mank” certainly can earn the viewers’ respect, it struggles in finding our admiration. It’s more of a film made with the care and cunning of people who know exactly what they’re doing, apart from what we need most now. It feels almost starved of human connection; a glance there, a longing look there, but it ultimately remains a portrait, trapped behind a silver screen.