Citizen Kane is one of the most important and influential films in American history. Whether you find its story exhilarating to watch or are bored to death by it (I tend to belong to the latter group), its use of deep focus cinematography and other techniques forever changed the world of cinema. Just as important as its cinematic techniques are its structural innovations, such as flashback. This structure can be attributed to its equally important screenplay, penned by the legend Herman Mankiewicz (Mank). David Fincher’s new film, Mank, portrays Mankiewicz’s fall and eventual rise as he struggled to finish his masterpiece.
Despite director David Fincher’s reputation as a filmmaker with a cold and perfectionist style, Mank has a much more human feel; that is to say, it loves its characters in a way most Fincher films don’t. It has so much sympathy and love for Mank, played by Gary Oldman. Oldman shines as Mankiewicz, a man who never really overcame his vice (his alcoholism led to his career downfall and, over a decade and a half later, his death), but never let them define him. Not being defined by alcoholism is a difficult thing to pull off, too, for a character who spends much of the film drunk. Mank gets into arguments at social gatherings, drinks frequently while penning his magnum opus, and, in the film’s riveting climax, crashes a party at the Hearst Castle drunk and underdressed and eventually vomits on the floor. Where Oldman really shines are the flashbacks, which show how he went from a fairly heavyweight writer for MGM to a washed up drunk who was given 60 days to write a script.
Oldman isn’t the only actor given the opportunity to throw his weight around; Amanda Seyfried of Mean Girls and Mamma Mia fame delivers a subtly fantastic performance as Marion Davies, actress and wife of William Randolph Hearst. Seyfried doesn’t quite steal the show, but she portrays Davies with so much charisma and believable enthusiasm that it’s hard not to love every moment she’s on screen.
The true star of the show isn’t Oldman or Seyfried, however; it’s the film’s style, ambience, and perfect recreation of 1930’s Los Angeles. The film is shot in High Dynamic Range black and white with truly stunning results. This isn’t a cheap attempt at invoking a bygone era — it’s a truly stunning stylistic achievement that has an authenticity most period pieces don’t even come close to. It feels like a film from the 1940’s in every sense. The cinematography, along with the once again phenomenal score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, give the film an ambience that doesn’t betray for a second.
Mank is a very good movie from a true master of his craft. Its production design, music, locations, and cinematography create a world that I would do anything to live in, and Oldman delivers an unbelievably human portrait of a man struggling to create a masterpiece on a sixty day deadline. Its one flaw is that it tries too hard to be Citizen Kane in parts, although never to the detriment to the film. Overall, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking which succeeds due to its director’s prowess and its stars’ incredible talents.