There’s something idiosyncratic about the first frame of Mank. Everything looks and feels uncannily like classic Hollywood, down to the grain and scratches on the fake celluloid, and then the words Netflix International Pictures precedes the title.
How far the medium has come that the platform guaranteed to topple the old studio system goes full circle and looks back at how toxic the industry was when the big five ruled the world. Golden Age be gone, Fincher and Netflix are after the final white whale – memory.
Mank refers to Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a loud and brash writer who moved to the west, where “there are millions to be made and the only competition is idiots”, only to find a culture of amoral excess. A rampant alcoholic and degenerate gambler, Mank is the kind of character who could only exist during that time at that place. Today a destructive force like this would be a cautionary tale, but we’re in the Swinging ‘30s – champagne for all if you can afford it.
It’s his charm and wit that gets invited to the circle of one William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), a type of Rupert Murdoch with more pomp and circumstance, and his young wife Marion Davis (Amanda Seyfried). Like a fish out of water, he becomes the amusing drunk jester in a room of opulent millionaires, at least until he takes what he learned to turn Hearst’s mansion into Xanadu, Marion into Susan and Hearst into Charles Foster Kane. Mank, now the pariah of Hollywood, finally finds a way to channel his self-boycotting nature for good.
Does this make Mank a great film? It’s fan service of the highest quality, made for film lovers that take for granted you already know who everyone is.
The writing of Citizen Kane is the frame in which David Fincher and writer Jack Fincher (David’s late father) convey the story. Stuck in a dry ranch to avoid any temptation, accompanied by a diligent British scribe Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), Mank tries to make sense of his shattered memories, like Kane on his deathbed, where the sleigh is replaced by a faint memory of whiskey.
The narrative jumps back and forth, like Wells’ film, focusing on episodes that could’ve led to the creation of the future “best film of all time”. Was it his relationship with Marion? Was it seeing Louis B Mayer emotionally asking his workers to take a 50 per cent pay cut, and then going on like it was nothing? Was it seeing his friends asking for a dollar on the street? Was it all that put together?
Halfway through the film settles on the race for Governor of California between Frank Merriam and socialist Upton Sinclair. Mank, supporting Sinclair, sees firsthand how media influenced the result against the interests of the destitute, and in a drunken rambling, that may or not have happened, he lays down the tragedy of a modern Don Quixote now the owner of a newspaper, before vomiting in front of the guests and famously claiming “it’s okay, the white wine came up with the fish”.
Fincher, the son, indulges like the big film nerd he is. Though he shot on digital, he adds film grain and cigarette burns like he’s distributing this film in reels, not a hard drive. Certain shots pay direct homage to Wells, made to catch the attention of us other big film nerds. Even the director, portrayed with refreshing clear-headedness by Tom Burke, is presented with such dramatic visuals it’s like Fincher was trying to get the same effect as Carol Reed did in The Third Man.
But does this make Mank a great film? It’s fan service of the highest quality, made for film lovers that take for granted you already know who everyone is. Netflix no doubt likes the message of the big studios against the pureness of creativity, but this piece of art is like honey to cinephiles.
Mank is now showing in cinemas across NSW and will be available on Netflix from December 4.