“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” So claims screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz on the circular narrative of his magnum opus. In a little over the two-hour mark, David Fincher’s luscious, elliptical and elusive Mank – from a script by his late father – may not capture the truth of its subject’s life, but it certainly does leave the impression of it.
Mank is first and foremost a love-letter to old Hollywood, shot in luminous black-and-white digital (2.20:1) complete with digital cigarette burns. Its mono sound even seems to have been mixed to give the impression of being projected in a cavernous film theatre (one wonders how the effect would play in an actual cinema instead of the way most audiences will see it, at home). And at the heart of Mank, there is a paradox.
The film tells one of the most famous tinseltown fables – that the anti-hero of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It not only welcomes a decent knowledge of Hollywood history: it positively requires it. The paradox is that, in its largely ahistorical telling of the fable, the more you know about the real story (Mankiewicz probably didn’t write the lion’s share of Kane and he certainly wasn’t a socialist) the more cognitively dissonant the narrative becomes for that portion of the audience know their history – and to whom Mank will invariably appeal the most.
Still, Quentin Tarantino got away with rewriting another myth of the dream factory in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, so why shouldn’t Fincher? Mank is an embellished story about an industry whose entire raison d’etre is in telling embellished stories: there is a richly-textured irony in its knowing artifice, like an ouroboros snake, eating itself in time to a Bernard Herman-esque score. If this all sounds a little too self-indulgent even for Hollywood in the midst of awards seasons, then fear not. Mank is also and primarily a gorgeous, entertaining and occasionally even captivating motion picture.
Much has been made of Oldman’s performance and it is indeed cracking stuff. His Mank is oddly reminiscent, in his largely supine delivery, of his turn as Churchill, but more laconic, less prosthetic and far more charming. But it’s Amanda Seyfried who steals the show, leaving a lasting impression of Marion Davies despite only a handful of scenes, while Charles Dance looms as only Charles Dance can as Hearst. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score sounds as if it’s been plucked straight from a classic noir or melodrama, and along with the beautiful costuming by Trish Summerville, ring true as the most authentic elements of the film.
Mank‘s temporal shifts sometimes feel uneven and threaten to unbalance moments of tension and catharsis. And though Mank’s alcoholism, gambling and ‘silly platonic affairs’ (as his long-suffering wife, Sara – played by an underutilised Tuppence Middleton – puts it) give the texture of depth, there’s very little real dimension to the Jack and David’s Mankiewicz.
The film conjures a man who is fundamentally, simplistically decent, while his demons only intrude on his integrity in the most superficial ways. Yet, in the end, Mank is not about capturing the totality of a person, but leaving an impression of one, and in that it is certainly successful.