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‘Mank’: The entertaining life of the ‘Citizen Kane’ writer, all there in black and white

Arguably the best-looking movie of the year, David Fincher’s richly layered biopic stars Gary Oldman, in peak form as the hard-living Herman Mankiewicz.

Gary Oldman portrays Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from “Mank.”
Gary Oldman plays screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in “Mank.”
Netflix

“Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” – New Hollywood arrival Herman Mankiewicz in telegram to Ben Hecht in 1927.

Herman Mankiewicz arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s brimming with confidence and loaded with credentials as a bona fide writer, from his stints as the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune to penning pieces for the New York Times and the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and even having a seat at the famous Algonquin Round Table. The movies? The movies were a lark, a well-paying gig for Mank, who loved being the star of every room he entered, even if that room was filled with real movie stars and moguls and influencers.

By 1940, however, the joke was mostly on Mank. His drinking and his self-destructive behavior and his whole Mank-first act had worn thin, and though he was only a couple of years past 40, he was in danger of washing out entirely when he was given one last great opportunity, courtesy of the 24-year-old genius Orson Welles: to write the screenplay that would become arguably the greatest movie of all time.

“Citizen Kane.”

Filmed in silvery, silken tones of black and white, dripping in Hollywood lore and filled with strikingly beautiful shots, David Fincher’s “Mank” is a love letter to Old Hollywood and also a love letter to Fincher’s father, Jack, who began working on this screenplay decades ago and died in 2003. The prolific and greatly gifted Fincher (“Zodiac,” “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl”) has wanted to make this movie for years, and while “Mank” doesn’t rank with his finest efforts, it’s a richly layered and consistently entertaining tale, with robust performances by more than a half-dozen veteran actors playing real-life Hollywood legends. Though at times dense and a bit difficult to track due to the almost frenetic time-hopping from the 1920s to 1940 to various points along the 1930s timeline, “Mank” is the kind of movie that makes you want to go back and re-watch not only “Citizen Kane” but the works of other characters featured in this story.

Gary Oldman is one of our finest actors and he has some wonderful showcase moments throughout the film, but at 62 and looking every bit his age, he’s too old to be playing Mank in his 30s and early 40s. Granted, by the time Mankiewicz started writing “Citizen Kane,” years of hard living had taken a toll on him, but still. That quibble aside, Oldman is in peak over-the-top-Gary Oldman form, sometimes coming close to chewing up the screen as Mank roars in and out of the lives of various Hollywood players, always leaving an indelible mark.

“Mank” is anchored with scenes at a secluded ranch in Victorville, Calif., where the downtrodden Mankiewicz is recovering from a car accident and about to dive into a screenplay at the behest of Welles (Tom Burke in a deft performance). A German housekeeper, Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), will tend to Mank’s health care, while a prim and proper young British secretary named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) will take dictation. From time to time, Welles’ colleague John Houseman (Sam Troughton) will stop by to make sure Mank is writing and not drinking. Good luck with that, old boy. The byplay between Mank and Rita, who has a husband fighting in the war, yields some of the best exchanges in the film and allows us to see Mank’s human side — which is usually lacking in the flashback sequences to the 1920s and 1930s, where the talented but aggressively obnoxious writer alternates between charming and totally alienating just about everyone with whom he has contact.

Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, finds a kindred spirit in Herman Mankiewicz.
NETFLIX

We detour this way and that in those flashback sequences, as Mank always acts like the outsider on the inside in encounters with the likes of studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), MGM exec Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and the powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who would become the inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane. Amanda Seyfried sparkles as Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, who longs to be taken seriously and finds a kindred spirit in Mank. At a gathering at Hearst Castle in San Simeon in the 1930s, only Mank and Marion voice concerns over Hitler’s growing power, while the fat cats in the room are more concerned with quashing the California gubernatorial campaign of the writer and socialist Upton Sinclair, by any means necessary. A scene in which Mank and Marion take a breather from the power cluster gathering and walk the grounds of Hearst’s private zoo is pure Hollywood magic.

Fincher regulars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross turn in another nomination-level score, with the music perfectly capturing the particular era and mood of any scene. “Mank” is arguably the best-looking movie of the year, with Fincher paying homage to Welles and “Citizen Kane” in certain shots and conveying a vintage Hollywood vibe throughout. This movie is sure to nab at least a half-dozen Oscar nomination, maybe even one for best screenplay. But whereas Herman Mankiewicz had to fight to get a screenwriting credit on “Citizen Kane,” there’s only one writer credited with penning “Mank.”

Jack Fincher.