Dropping on Netflix on Dec. 4 after a limited theatrical run, David Fincher’s 11th film “Mank” is a glorious declaration of love to the golden age of movies, and to one movie in particular.
In it, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), with a broken leg and a taste for liquor, is squirreled away in a remote house with a secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and a nurse, Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann), and given two months to write an original screenplay.
The man who hired him is named Orson Welles, and the screenplay will become “Citizen Kane.”
Through flashbacks, the movie depicts Mank’s various interactions with powerful newspaperman William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), as well as political happenings of the time, all leading up to the masterful script.
Yet it brings up a conundrum. It’s densely packed with Hollywood lore, references popping off at every turn like firecrackers.
In one scene, a young journalist, Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), has been invited to Hollywood to write pictures. His telegram reads: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” (In reality this was sent by Mank to writer Ben Hecht.)
Lederer — who will be Mank’s connection to Davies — enters the writers room and meets Mank, as well as Hecht (Jeff Harms), S.J. Perelman (Jack Romano), Charles MacArthur (John Churchill) and George S. Kaufman (Adam Shapiro), an all-star team of wordsmiths responsible for some of the best and funniest films ever made.
Then, they are all called into a story meeting with David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), who introduces them to a young director named Josef von Sternberg (Paul Fox).
Film buffs — and film critics — are sure to know all these legendary names, but how many casual Netflix viewers will? (Especially when Netflix’s own “classics” section is so pitifully lean.) But what follows is universal.
The writers begin pitching a story that they are making up on the spot. They each take a turn, and then gesture to the next fellow with a wave of their cigars — pilfered from Selznick’s personal stash — and a yarn about a sad monster magically emerges.
This illustrates Fincher’s greatest challenge with “Mank.” He must try to find something inherently dramatic, emotional and cinematic about what is essentially an inert story about a yet another alcoholic writer putting words to paper.
He succeeds through several methods. First, there’s the amazing widescreen, black-and-white cinematography (still the best color and shape for movies), given little touches — including a deliberately primitive sound design — to make it seem more retro, and to give it a poetic heft.
Then there are the performances, especially by Oldman, who simply becomes Mank, and by Seyfried, who embodies the paradox of Ms. Davies, a funny, free spirit in a gilded cage.
And there’s another brilliant score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, this one less knuckle-biting than their previous outings with Fincher, and more attuned to the inner workings of the dream factory.
There’s also a strong sense of the personal, as the sparkling, gem-laden screenplay was written decades ago by Fincher’s father Jack, who once served as the San Francisco bureau chief of Life magazine, and died in 2003.
Fincher has tried to get “Mank” made since the days of his Madonna music videos, but held out until one studio, Netflix, agreed to let him make it in black-and-white. One gets the feeling that Fincher is honoring his own father through Mankiewicz.
But what must have been added in the days since 2016 are sequences involving the 1934 gubernatorial election in California, where progressive Democrat (and writer) Upton Sinclair challenged and lost to Republican Frank Merriam, largely thanks to fake, lie-filled newsreels created by Irving Thalberg.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But how does it all come together? As electric and as breathtaking as “Mank” is for the initiated, how does it work as a movie-movie?
The answer is: It works well enough. It’s hard to argue that it’s as great as Fincher’s “Fight Club” or “Zodiac” or “The Social Network.” But moments like that cigar scene, or a walk-and-talk by Mank and Davies through Hearst’s San Simeon mansion (their voices echoing in the massive space), and scenes with Mank and his younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), the future writer-director of “All About Eve,” are movie magic in their own ways.
To be truly great, perhaps “Mank” needed its own Rosebud, that one thing that Mank would have held onto tightly, which symbolized everything in his life. Or perhaps that thing was the script, which was originally called, simply, “American.”
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance
Written by: Jack Fincher
Directed by: David Fincher
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes