**** out of **** (Four Out of Four Stars)
As behind-the-scenes Hollywood lore goes, few meet the levels of infamy, excess and genius as Herman "Mank" Mankowitz. In 1942, he won an Oscar (shared with director Orson Welles) for penning the "Citizen Kane" screenplay — still considered by many cinephiles as the greatest feature film ever made.
Working from a screenplay by his late father Jack, the movie "Mank" has been on director David Fincher’s radar for well over two decades. At the time he first wanted to make it (1998), Fincher was still a not-quite-bankable commodity in the movie industry but probably could have gotten it made, had he not insisted on filming it in black and white.
His persistence has finally paid off. "Mank" is thus far the best feature film of 2020, yet given the erratic release schedule of this entirely bug-nuts year in movies and everything else, any accolades and awards "Mank" might receive will likely come with the film industry equivalent of a Super Bowl win after a strike-shortened NFL season.
From the first frame, Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt are clearly striving for something far more than simple imitation and homage.
The now familiar red Netflix "N" logo has been reconfigured and miniaturized to resemble that of the iconic RKO "radio" studio logo, the sharp, bold font for the credits modeled in the vein of classic westerns.
The orchestrated score is at once traditional and as off-center as co-composer Trent Reznor’s work with the-far-from-orchestral Nine Inch Nails.
As with many aspects of "Citizen Kane," the Fincher’s opted for a non-linear narrative, deep-focus photography, heavily-shadowed imagery and multiple inclusions of the pervasive presence of media-instilled fear into art and American politics.
Unlike "Citizen Kane" where Mankowitz (Gary Oldman) and Welles (Tom Burke) barely cloaked the lives of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his longtime paramour/muse Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the filmmakers here include only non-fictional characters, most of them a veritable who’s-who of Hollywood’s Golden Era hierarchy.
While taking a small degree of "artistic license," the Finchers adhere closely to what historians have stated as fact both before and during the writing of "Citizen Kane," much to the chagrin of some members of the press who are nitpicking the most minor of details.
The second most prevalent critical complaint is that "Mank" is not a "stand-alone" film.
This is inaccurate and is the same situation for any (sequel or prequel) movie based on or following in the footsteps of another. Even the smartest of us couldn’t figure out what was going on in the second "Godfather" had we not previously seen the first, or, for that matter, "Terminator" and "Terminator 2."
In the case of "Mank," yes, having already watched "Citizen Kane" in advance of "Mank" will probably make things easier to understand, but it is not essential.
The filmmakers include sufficient amounts of back-story for Welles, Mankowitz, Hearst, Davies, and many other principal characters in the film. It wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say watching "Citizen Kane" after viewing “Mank” might even be preferable.
From virtually every sub-plot and perspective, "Mank" is a prequel to Citizen Kane.”
To take it a step further, there is no "Citizen Kane" type of "Rosebud" MacGuffin included in "Mank." From the first scene to the last, the "Rosebud" mystery — while admittedly engrossing and very satisfying in its payoff — is not crucial to the overall impact of the narrative, but rather just an added treat.
It is also worth noting there are two other features — both TV originals — which add greatly to the legend of "Citizen Kane."
The first — "The Battle Over Citizen Kane" from 1996 — is a documentary which aired on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series and parallels the lives of Welles and Hearst in a manner not unlike that employed in "The Godfather, Part II."
In 1999, it was adapted into "RKO 281," an HBO original film (which includes some of the same material found in “Mank”), starring Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst, John Malkovich as Mankowitz, and Melanie Griffith as Davies. As TV live-action features go, it is superb and rightfully received many industry accolades and awards.
The performances by the entire cast of "Mank"are all top-shelf (the film should win the next Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble), but it is the typically excellent Oldman, the highly underrated Seyfried, Lily Collins as Mankowitz’s secretary Rita Alexander and Arliss Howard ("Full Metal Jacket," 1987) as MGM head-honcho Louis B. Meyer which are the standouts.
The decision to limit the screen time of Dance and Burke was wise as it only adds to the Welles-Hearst legend and mystique.
The ultimate triumph however belongs to the younger Fincher whose partial resume alone – "Se7en" (1995), "Fight Club" (1999), "Zodiac" (2007), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), and "The Social Network" (2010) – would be the envy of any director. With “Mank,” he has made the most personal film of his career.
He and his late father deserve all possible industry awards for their work here.
Originally from Washington, D."C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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