The arguments over whether Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made will rage on forever. But the greatest film about Citizen Kane – and just about any other movie – has definitely arrived. David Fincher’s eleventh film is a lavish love letter to old Hollywood in all its glory, cynicism and wild extravagance. It’s crafted with the kind of monochromatic elegance that begs to be soaked up on the big screen – though your telly will definitely do for the time being.
‘Mank’ is Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the no-shits-giving, booze-soaked, gambling-addicted, puckish playwright who Orson Welles (Tom Burke) taps up to help write the script for Citizen Kane. He is one of Hollywood’s finest writers, a gifted dramatist seduced across the country from Broadway by the promise of big bucks and the chance to play the holy fool in the court of its ego-driven moguls. He is, to put it politely, a royal pain in Tinseltown’s butt, and Oldman relishes every sly aside and grandstanding, sozzled speech in a script that’s rich in both.
That screenplay is the posthumous achievement of Fincher’s dad Jack, whose story has been waiting for a backer since 1997. Or perhaps it was just waiting for Netflix to come along, because when Welles boasts to Mankiewicz here of getting ‘final cut, final everything’ for Citizen Kane, it counts double for Mank. This black-and-white, period-style opus about a relatively unheralded screenwriter isn’t what you’d call a mainstream proposition, and Fincher has carte blanche to use all the toys and techniques at his disposal. But do you need to be a hardcore cineaste to enjoy it? Not remotely.
Mank introduces its protagonist in 1940 on a literal road to ruin: a car crash leaves him bedridden and Welles has ensured that the bed in question is on a remote California ranch, where a British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and German physio (Monika Gossmann) can keep him away from the liquor long enough to meet his exacting deadline.
Then we’re flashing back a decade to Mank’s early days, coming up with new movie ideas on the hoof with his fellow writers in the office of Paramount boss David O Selznick, before he falls into the orbit of MGM’s bully-boy boss Louis B Mayer (an archly intimidating Arliss Howard). This phase of the movie is a who’s who of Tinseltown power players that never falls prey to the cartoonishness that plagues other movies about the movies. The stars come so thick and fast you won’t feel so bad about missing a Joan Crawford here or a Charlie Chaplin there.
Mank commits fully to its Wellesian style, with theatrical fades at the end of scenes, echoey sound mixing, a Bernard Hermann-channelling score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and deep-focus photography. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt emulates his Kane counterpart Gregg Toland, capturing every conspiratorial exchange and disdainful look in the background of sumptuously staged party scenes. It roots itself in period authenticity that never tips into pastiche.
Things are rarely coincidental where Fincher is concerned, and the number of Brits in the cast almost certainly isn’t. He’s pitching for a period style of acting here and finds it in Collins, all Vivien Leigh looks and cut-glass Deborah Kerr tones. Her tender scenes with Oldman are a highlight and may just earn her Oscar recognition. The restraint is there, too, in Charles Dance’s newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, the man who famously inspired the character of Charles Foster Kane. Citizen Hearst is an altogether different beast from the onscreen mogul: a taciturn, vampiric presence at the parties he throws at his Xanadu-like castle. It’s at one of them that Mank finally – and fatally – overplays his hand.
Not a single line reading jars or scene fails to land. Burke is wonderful, as always, despite a prosthetic nose that, in profile, makes him look as much like Sam the Eagle as Orson Welles. Tuppence Middleton is far too young to play Mankiewicz’s wife Sara (the same age as the screenwriter IRL), but she does a bang-up job in exchanges that mostly play out via telephone as her husband’s life slips into pissed-up chaos. Amanda Seyfried is on career-best form as Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, a much savvier customer than the Citizen Kane character, Susan Alexander, she was rumoured to have inspired.
But, inevitably, satisfyingly, it’s Oldman’s show. Whether bed-bound and spitballing scenes, wittily haranguing his hosts at another decadent soirée or recoiling from Hollywood’s corrosive political alliances, he’s magnetic as a loveable rogue with a mouth that gets him into trouble and a pen that gets him out of it. The last time Oldman played a heavy drinker from the 1940s, he won an Oscar for it. Don’t be surprised if he does it again.
Streaming on Netflix globally Dec 4.