That was the simple advertising line that adorned most posters and newspaper ads for the landmark film Citizen Kane when it was released in 1941. Let me say the same line applies to David Fincher’s masterpiece Mank, a film centering on the creation of the script for Kane and the man who shares official credit with Orson Welles for writing it. That man would be Herman Mankiewicz, who, as played with uncanny authority by Gary Oldman, is an alcoholic who writes a lot in bed, brings a wicked wit to much in his life, and is a writer of monumental talent who turns out to be quite the character before the bottle completely did him in at far too young an age.
But although he had a successful career at the typewriter, with and without credit, Citizen Kane was the crown jewel of his career, one for which he shared the only Oscar (for Best Screenplay) the film won, a movie so innovative many still consider it the greatest and certainly most influential ever made. It was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, as well as Lead Actor and Director for Welles, delivering him four individual nominations, a feat that has not been matched by many in Academy history (though Warren Beatty managed to pull it off twice for Reds and Heaven Can Wait in the same four categories).
Kane famously lost to How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture, and other than an Honorary Oscar, Welles would never again win a competitive Academy Award other than the one he shares with Mank. Over the decades, there has been much controversy about who really deserves credit, or sole credit, for the writing of this landmark movie, and it still rages today, as well as in a key scene in this movie. As the film shows, Mankiewicz, through his friendship and connections with William Randolph Hearst (the real-life model for Charles Foster Kane), clearly knew the lay of the land that became the blueprint and heartbeat of the film that Welles has been so hailed for, in only his mid-20s when he made it.
The embargo for reviews doesn’t break until a week from tomorrow, so because I will be doing that, I won’t give too much detail on what makes this one of the best films about movies I have ever seen. But for purposes of analyzing its place in this year’s extended Oscar race of 14 months — from January 1, 2020 through February 28, 2021 — it would be hard to imagine at this point any other film generating more heat. Netflix held its first, very limited look at the film exactly one month ago, and I was fortunate to be among the first to see it. It has certainly stuck with me ever since, and now with tonight’s special screening with invites sent via “Western Union,” Netflix is allowing word-of-mouth to take hold in a more public way. The David Fincher Q&A, however, that was advertised on the invite actually did not take place after all. But the film speaks for itself: It is a gift from son to father, since Fincher’s late dad, Jack Fincher, penned the script for Mank but didn’t live to see it actually made before his death in 2003.
For the talented journalist, this film will be his legacy, and I fully expect a posthumous nomination for Screenplay to be among the many that Mank receives, although it may not break the near-record 13 nominations his 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received (but don’t count out the possibility). Fincher, whose prodigious résumé also includes gems like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Gone Girl, Panic Room and more, just possibly tops himself here, although I have to say Social Network was completely robbed at the Oscars when The King’s Speech derailed it. Will this finally be his year? Academy members have been known to be quite receptive to films about themselves in recent years, so I wouldn’t count it out. It comes in as a front-runner six months out from the April 25 Oscar show.
Expect nominations for Best Picture, Director, Oldman as Best Actor, a revelatory Amanda Seyfried in Supporting Actress as Marion Davies, Erik Messerschmidt’s stunning black-and-white cinematography, Donald Graham Burke’s production design, Trish Summerville’s luscious costume design, Kirk Baxter’s film editing, the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross plus makeup, sound, and visual effects (many of the locations were through the magic of digital). There are also possible Supporting Actor contenders, especially with Charles Dance’s Hearst and Arliss Howard’s wry Louis B. Mayer. But they may be more long shots in a crowded year in that category. A shout-out also to Tom Burke for a dead-on impression of Welles. But this film does not belong to the lord of Kane, but its dutiful writer instead. I can guarantee the Writers Guild members are going to go crazy for this one.
What Fincher has done so cleverly and beautifully here is to make a film that actually looks and feels like it was made in the era it takes place. No small feat. Beyond the Hollywood connection of it all, though, is a surprisingly before-its-time fake news undercurrent that strikes right at the heart of the Trump world we find ourselves currently stuck in. Beyond the surface and glamour of the movies, Mank also manages to be about so much more. That ultimately could be its ticket to the Academy Awards.
Mank begins a theatrical run November 13 before streaming on Netflix starting December 4.
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