Greetings again from the darkness. “Just a writer.” The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.
More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher’s first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it’s based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It’s a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the “best” movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special. Director Fincher’s film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz’s writing process for ‘Kane’, some background on Mankiewicz’s career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics.
Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J “Mank” Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he’s still at one of those gatherings.
Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be “write what you know”, and don’t drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.
We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer … writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane’s wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank’s wife “Poor” Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).
Director Fincher’s masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion – both talented, yet not quite allowed in the “club”. Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots” (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).
Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor’s race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers – quite the mishmash of disrespect.
The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank’s contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It’s filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.