Remember in David Fincher’s “Fight Club” where we learn that Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) moonlights at a movie theater as a projectionist? This was 1999, before the advent of digital projection, and the movie would be cued up on two reels. Ten seconds before a reel change, you would see a little circle in the upper-right corner, known as a “cigarette burn.” Then you’d see another “burn” and the reel would change. Years later, the first digitally projected movie I remember seeing was Fincher’s “The Social Network,” and “cigarette burns” were now obsolete.
Fincher’s first feature in five years, “Mank” (Netflix International Pictures, 131 mins., 2020) is a Hollywood period piece written by Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher that follows the creation of the Orson Welles classic “Citizen Kane” through the eyes of its primary screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). Welles shared script credit but “Mank” believes he may not have deserved it. The younger Fincher has not only shot the film in black and white so as to make it look like “Kane” and a product of his era, he actually put cigarette burn reel changes on a Netflix movie that I watched this weekend on my phone. It is fascinating, easily one of the best films of 2020.
When people talk about Fincher’s obsessive attention to detail, it’s this kind of grace note that they’re talking about. I haven’t seen a movie with such fetishistic production design since Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”
But very few of us walk out of a movie humming about the production design. Welles is such an important cultural figure that there’s a rich subgenre of movies about Welles with other actors playing him, including “Heavenly Creatures” (Jean Guérin), “Ed Wood” (Vincent D’Onofrio voiced by Maurice LaMarche), “RKO 281” (Liev Schreiber), “Fade to Black” (Danny Huston), “Me and Orson Welles” (Christian McKay), and even movies about Hearst’s mistress, starlet Marion Davies, on whom a “Citizen Kane” character was based on: “Chaplin” (Heather McNair) and “The Cat’s Meow” (Kirsten Dunst).
“Mank” earns its place among those other films. Jack Fincher’s screenplay is loaded up with little-known political history and other telling details about the period and its people that would inspire Oldman’s alcoholic Mankiewicz to lose faith in his fellow man and be inspired to use William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) as his “inspiration” for Charles Foster Kane. For one thing, it was news to me that MGM actually used actors to make political propaganda films in the 1934 election, nor was I aware of the smear campaign underfoot to undermine progressive candidate and author Upton Sinclair.
With its Hollywood black-and-white look, “Mank” would make a perfect double bill with Tim Burton’s 1994 classic “Ed Wood.” Amanda Seyfried gives a wonderfully vulnerable performance as Marion Davies. There’s a long scene of cocktail chatter at Hearst’s mansion that includes icons like Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford, and there’s a funny writer’s bullpen sequence that’s a roll call of the great Golden Age writers — legends like Ben Hecht, S. J. Perelman and George S. Kaufman.