“Who was that again?” asks one Hollywood insider to another early on in “Mank.” “Just a writer,” is the reply, and there’s the time-honored contempt with which the movie business has traditionally treated the men and women who come up with the words. The movie — a lustrous, dense, and damning piece of work arriving this week in local theaters and on Netflix Dec. 4 — both respects the tradition and serves as a writer’s revenge. Directed by David Fincher and featuring yet another unholy disappearing act by Gary Oldman, “Mank” is one of the year’s best movies if you’re the kind of person who genuinely loves movies and damn close if you’re not. Even the latter may be brought up short and shocked by a period piece that says the all-American verities of dirty political tricks and right-wing propaganda go back long before Fox News, all the way to the birth of the talkies.
The title character in “Mank” is Herman J. Mankiewicz, prolific screenwriter, prodigious drinker, Algonquin wit — the kind of man who bites the hand that feeds him so amusingly that no one cares about the blood. The movie is about how Mankiewicz, played by Oldman with shabby, helpless perceptiveness, came to write the script for “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 Orson Welles landmark that is often cited as the greatest movie of all time. Whether it is or not, “Kane” fictionalized the life of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst — the Rupert Murdoch of his day — with such venom that everyone’s hand felt the bite. Welles’s career never recovered, nor did Mankiewicz’s.
But that’s all in the future as “Mank” opens, shot by Erik Messerschmidt in glorious black-and-white widescreen (the former is period appropriate, the latter isn’t but who cares). Mank has broken his leg in a car accident and “Kane”'s producer, the young John Houseman (Sam Troughton), installs the writer in a bungalow far from the Hollywood fray with a private nurse (Monika Gossmann), a private secretary (Lily Collins), and a case of whiskey laced with Seconal. He has 90 days to finish the script — no, says a breezy Welles (Tom Burke) over the phone, make it 60.
“Mank” toggles back and forth between the writing of the first draft — called, simply, “American” — and scenes from Mankiewicz’s heyday in the early 1930s. The writers' room where celebrated names like George S. Kaufman and Ben Hecht played poker with strippers, the back-lot bustle, and the upbeat depravity of men like MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Hearst himself (Charles Dance), the latter ruling over his private theme park of San Simeon with actress-mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Mankiewicz got close enough to Davies and San Simeon to know what he was writing about; he was the kind of court jester that takes notes and keeps receipts. Much of the flashbacks in “Mank” involve the hero’s gradual disillusionment when author and Socialist Upton Sinclair mounts a credible run for governor of California and the combined forces of media and the movies turn the newsreels against him. Anyway, who needs real news when you have an entire studio to make it up with?
If you care to squint the right way, Hearst is Murdoch and Mayer is Roger Ailes and the mendacity, the lies we’re sold as news as entertainment, were built right into the studio cornerstones. Is that why Mank writes a script in which the news baron is a monstrous lost boy and his mistress — Mank’s friend — a sad no-talent? “It’s not about Marion,” Mank tells everyone within earshot as word of the “Kane” script spreads throughout town like a stain and pressure builds against him. But when does taking a stand become personal betrayal, and vice versa?
That’s what “Mank” is about, not the writing of “Citizen Kane,” not really. Welles barely figures in the film, although the movie doesn’t go so far as to assert that Mankiewicz was the “real” author of “Kane,” as Pauline Kael once famously claimed. What remains to be seen is whether any of this matters to you. “Mank” is a deep dive into Hollywood history, rich as tiramisu with the kind of in-jokes and arcane references that delight people who know the lore. Who know who Irving Thalberg was and how much Mayer hated him; who have heard the rumors about what Rosebud was really named after. Critics will love the movie. I love the movie.
At the same time, Fincher mounts the lore so thickly that casual viewers stand to be shut out. In the self-aware words of the film’s Houseman, “You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience: a hodgepodge of talky episodes.” Do you need to have seen “Citizen Kane” to understand “Mank”? Not really, but a visit to the Wikipedia page about its making would probably help. (On the other hand, if you haven’t seen “Kane,” why are you here?)
Tom Pelphrey makes an impression as Mank’s kid brother Joe, still new in town and not yet the director of “All About Eve." Tuppence Middleton is even better as Mank’s long-suffering wife, Sara — a.k.a. “Poor Sara” — who loves him in spite of and because of his brilliant, bibulous faults. Best is Seyfried’s tough, vulnerable Marion Davies, and if nothing else, “Mank” stands as a long overdue reclamation of a talent maligned for decades.
The script for “Mank” was written by the director’s father, Jack Fincher, who died in 2003; the project has been around for years, unmade because Fincher fils insisted on shooting it in black-and-white. With its bottomless war chest and thirst for respect, Netflix happily bankrolled the project, and “Mank” arrives spot on time for an era in which half the country is still gulled by the lies of certain men who own the media but the other half sees the lies for what they are: a means to power, profit, and control. With “Citizen Kane,” Fincher says, Mank finally bit hard enough for even the folks out there in the dark to feel it, no matter that Welles deserves the lion’s share of the credit. With “Citizen Kane,” we learned to distrust the men who said they were telling us and selling us the truth. Whoever had the nerve to say such a thing? Just a writer.
Directed by David Fincher. Written by Jack Fincher. Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins. 133 minutes. At Kendall Square. R (some language)