Review: ‘Mank’ sparkles

(Adapted from my review in the December issue of Amarillo Magazine)

Director David Fincher explores the Golden Age of Hollywood — clear-eyed, but still a little bit in love — in Mank, a sparkling look at the creation of one of the finest films ever made.

The film, in limited theatrical release now, drops Dec. 4 on Netflix.

Filmed in luminescent black and white, Mank explores the career of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), primarily the 60-day period in which he wrote Citizen Kane for director Orson Welles. Like Kane, Mank flashes back and forth across its central character’s life and career, not only as he writes the magnum opus, but primarily in the times he crosses swords with the film’s inspiration, oligarch newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and with the film’s director, Welles (Tom Burke), with whom he battles for credit.

A word about Kane: I’ve watched it several times, and it never ceases to amaze me how fun it is. With its reputation as the greatest movie of all time, you might think of it as something unapproachable, something fusty, something to admire but not love. Absolutely not.

Paying homage to such a crucial and exciting highpoint of cinema must have been attractive to Fincher, but Mank is even more of a labor of love for him. Fincher is better known for making precise thrillers like Gone Girl or Zodiac, not films about the writing process. But in this case, Mank comes from a 2003 screenplay by the director’s late father, Jack, and it’s a delight to see Fincher tackle such a personal project.

Mank folds in a political subplot, about the ways Hearst conspired with Hollywood players to sink the gubernatorial candidacy of author Upton Sinclair, that feels straight out of 2020, or at least 2016. It also rehabilitates the reputation of Hearst’s lady love, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, sensational), as a talented actress, not just Hearst’s plus-one. And throughout, it’s filled with biting bon mots, as if Mank were embodying his brother’s script for All About Eve.

Mank meets-cute with Marion Davies. (Courtesy Netflix)

There’s a deeper message, too, about how movies — or any kind of popular culture up to and including social media and cable news — can be used to shape public understanding, for good and mostly for ill.

I’m not sure it all entirely coheres — I’m already primed for a rewatch — but it’s a cracking good time anyway.

(Rated R for some language)

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