David Fincher’s passion project “Mank,” his first feature in six years, masquerades as filmmaking folklore while tossing and turning a chilly fever dream that deploys and devastates writerly self-image. The creamy black-and-white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (“Gone Girl,” “Mindhunter”) swaddles its figures in a dreamland hush that disguises dense hallucination. Alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, centered, saturnine) is not an unreliable narrator, captured in the bloom and bruise of soused yet righteous imagination, but an unreliable dreamer.
Affairs at hand provide greater intrigue if this portrait of 1930s and 1940s film studio doings is simply taken from Mankiewicz’s solipsistic perspective, letting factual gloss and preconceptions over the writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay of “Citizen Kane” in collaboration with Orson Welles dissipate. (The decades of contention over that history will be obscure to most viewers anyway.) The weave of past and tenuous present as Mankiewicz holes up on a Victorville, California ranch to write a first draft is more Alain Resnais-like than a graven deconstruction of “Kane,” taking the form of a dreamer adrift and intermittently startled, a transgressor in the moneyed venues of the wealthy, as in “Last Year at Marienbad” (“Last Year In Victorville”?)
Other hands touched the screenplay, credited to Fincher’s late father, Jack, in the seventeen years since his passing, including veteran Eric Roth (“The Insider,” “Benjamin Button”). “Mank” was inspired by “Raising Kane,” Pauline Kael’s serialized, suspect 1971 jeremiad, published in the New Yorker, which reduced the complexities of its creation and sloughed creative credit from the still-living Orson Welles and dolloped it upon Mankiewicz. (Wellesians who find the “Mank” screenplay’s fancies of high odor include Joseph McBride, Todd McCarthy and Jonathan Rosenbaum; and Ben Schwartz highlights spiky historical anomalies.)
“Mank” is intermittently thrilling in its weirdness, largely wistful, more so if you have a pre-established interest in the milieu and moment: it’s a whiskey glass half full, half full, tugged upon and tugged upon. When politics rears woollily, there are blunt statements about labor and capital that are as galvanizing in its own monochrome fashion as “Fight Club.”
Fincher’s film honors the role of the raconteur and compresses the legends. There is a taste of latter-day tip-of-the-tongue, flick-of-the-fingers writer David Milch (“NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood”) as Mankiewicz at work and play dictates from the annals of his effortless erudition. There is sophisticated spleen: Some is drawn from bittersweet lore, not limited to a telegram advertising that “your only competition is idiots” and a vomitous dinner party transgression leavened by the mannerly, mannered “Don’t worry—The white wine came up with the fish.”
Arliss Howard’s memorably two-faced and volcanic studio chieftain, the industrialized macher Louis B. Mayer, has words for writer Sinclair and his run for governor of California: “I’m happy enough just to nail that utopian son of a bitch to the wall.” (Howard has a passage where Fincher’s camera etches Mayer’s hand flicking into a low angle during a walk-and-talk-and-tell, making love to the studio chieftain’s presumptive power.) The bitter cost of manufactured consent dramatized through Mayer’s machinations is key to the movie’s historical parallels, and there’s more than a taste of metafiction about modern politics and latter-day moviemaking.
Would Orson Welles appreciate being a smiler in the shadows, used as the harlequin of another man’s story? Amused, maybe. But while Welles lurks and looms, the drift of “Mank” is a confabulation of Mankiewicz’s vexations, taxations, obsessions, narcosis. Even his friendship with Marion Davies, a source of the gruesome girlfriend in “Citizen Kane,” is elevated in platonic joy between the pair, as well as Amanda Seyfried’s splendid performance of many knowing levels of radiant intelligence. While decades older than Mankiewicz at the time, Oldman is the customary chameleon, and his climactic dinner party peroration over the studio system’s timeless “values,” the elusiveness of economic justice and even socialism versus communism: it’s terrific. 131m. (Ray Pride)
“Mank” is on Netflix from Friday, December 4.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.