A pivotal event in David Fincher’s ambitious, sprawling “Mank” is Orson Welles’ blast of volcanic hate in which he rampages through a room of expensive furniture and antiques. As the camera watches the artist-genius throw a spectacular, frightening tantrum, he recedes into the frame, a starkly symbolic figure in a world verging on chaos.
Fincher works in much the same way himself. Set in 1939 and punctuated by flashbacks to 1934, “Mank” is a sweeping cinematic mural of post-Great Depression Hollywood where hyperbolic vision and one-dimensional hypocrisy mainly clash but sometimes embrace. It’s a big, courageous, sometimes frustratingly simplified movie that rises through sheer technique and mood over its own weaknesses.
Its focus is on a single, grand gesture that can be seen as a coalescing of the art of the motion picture, the economics of moviemaking, personal ego and national politics between the Depression and World War II: the creation by Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz of “Citizen Kane” from 1941. The film becomes, for Fincher, a defining moment that yields a crowded mirror-image of the episodes linked together that made “Kane” a masterpiece of form and content.
But this is not to say “Mank” is a masterpiece. From Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the sardonic, alcoholic rogue artist given 60 days to complete the script for Welles’ dream picture, to Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), the obnoxious M-G-M tyrant who calls his employees “family” and then tells them their salaries will be cut in half, “Mank” covers a vast amount of terrain even as the story gradually takes a backseat to the atmosphere.
With astonishing boldness for a commercial entertainment film, and as further proof that Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Se7en,” “Zodiac”) has taken admirable creative chances in the past, “Mank” devotes much attention to the California gubernatorial election lost by the liberal, pro-labor union novelist and social critic Upton Sinclair. It would polarize Hollywood and affect the creation of “Citizen Kane.” However dry and irrelevant this plot diversion sounds (and there are a few others), the movie’s stellar cast keeps “Mank” consistently interesting.
Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) is seen taking dictation from Mank and slyly serving as a technical advisor. And Sara Mankiewicz (Tuppence Middleton), Mank’s silently suffering wife, fed up with her husband’s condescensions, demands he stop calling her “poor Sara.” Meanwhile, Welles (Tom Burke), derisively nicknamed “The Wunderkind,” visits Mank at his cottage to let him know he is ever-watchful of his pet project. Mank attracts the interest of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a successful comic actress and the movie’s most affecting character. The neophyte writer Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) finds he swims with sharks when he joins the studio’s contract writing staff. And William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the newspaper magnate, makes himself a regally fatuous inspiration for the fictitious Kane.
Fincher shoots “Mank” in a dazzling, high-definition black-and-white (the cinematographer is Eric Messerschmidt). Ultimately, Fincher, as intrepid and tenacious as ever, makes it clear that art and commerce Hollywood-style is both tough and purposeful.