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"Mank" Reviewed: Is The Story Of The Best Movie Ever Made The Best Movie Of The Year?

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in David Fincher's impressive <em>Mank.</em>
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in David Fincher's impressive Mank.

Orson Welles seems to be Hollywood’s undying obsession, between the completion of “The Other Side of the Wind” in 2018 and this year’s release of a new “Citizen Kane” backlot drama.

But this time, the spotlight is not on Welles alone. It’s on Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter of “Citizen Kane” and subject of “Mank,” the new Netflix film from director David Fincher. A dizzying voyage into cinema’s Golden Age, “Mank” recounts the political and creative roadblocks that Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, faced while writing “the greatest movie ever made.”

The film, which is photographed in inky black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, opens on a lonely, dust-blown highway. The year is 1940, and Mankiewicz, a washed-up screenwriter battling alcoholism, is holed up in the Mojave Desert to write the first film for Hollywood newcomer Orson Welles.

Fincher freely plays with the timeline in “Mank,” jumping between several defining moments in Mankiewicz’s life that informed his landmark screenplay. From his chance encounters with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, to a gubernatorial race with damning political implications, “Mank” doesn't flow through time linearly, rather, it's more like the circular story of “Citizen Kane.”

But the central drama in “Mank” lies in the then-present day of 1940, as Mankiewicz whittles away at his script while surrounded by his nurse, secretary and, occasionally, overbearing producer John Houseman. In one crucial scene, Houseman, played by Sam Troughton, casually offers Mankiewicz a particularly prophetic piece of advice: “Tell the story you know.”

Mankiewicz evidently took this advice to heart, producing the ultimate American tragedy, the story of an ambitious young man whose hubris is the cause for his rapid ascent and subsequent downfall. Centered on a fictitious newspaper mogul and a talentless starlet, Mankiewicz’s screenplay drew obvious comparisons to Hearst and his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried.

Mankiewicz knew Hearst and Davies intimately, after years of attending social dinners at San Simeon, Hearst’s gargantuan estate. Fincher reproduces these mythical gatherings in flashback sequences, taking full advantage of the black-and-white cinematography to create ghostly, dreamlike images. High and low angles are included as homages to the groundbreaking visual design of “Citizen Kane,” but, here, Fincher repurposes these techniques to convey his protagonist’s muddled state of mind.

All told, Fincher’s stylized visuals and nonlinear narrative make for a somewhat challenging viewing experience. The film is packed with rapid-fire dialogue and stuffed with cultural allusions that viewers could easily miss if they aren’t devoting their full attention.

But that's okay, because “Mank” isn’t a movie that sets out to hold your hand and walk you through a predictably-paced story. It’s more than that. As Mankiewicz puts it, the movie is akin to a cinnamon roll, its story swirling around itself instead of going in a straight line.

As a reflection of its title character, “Mank” is challenging, uncompromising and, if you watch closely enough, rather enlightening. It’s a story about a man who dared to tell the story he knew: a story of greed, power and the illusions that hide them. In other words, it’s a story about Hollywood itself.

Nicole Baxter is a Sponsorship Coordinator and covers film as a contributing writer for Iowa Public Radio.