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Movie review: A Hollywood legend gets a fresh retelling in the mesmerizing ‘Mank’

Ed Symkus
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Mank (Gary Oldman) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) have a chat.

It’s December. It’s officially pre-awards season, when all the film critics and voters begin thinking about Top-10 lists and nominees. Here’s a hot tip for those folks - and for normal moviegoers: Be sure to see “Mank.” It’s the equivalent of one-stop shopping if you’re looking for candidates in certain categories, say, for starters: Best Picture, Actor, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography.

Set mostly in 1940, with a generous supply of flashbacks to different stops in the 1930s, “Mank” is the story of how prolific screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) came up with the script for “Citizen Kane,” the film that launched the screen career of Orson Welles.

It’s a true story, told in a script by the late-Jack Fincher - father of the film’s director David Fincher - that isn’t afraid to play with a few facts. So, to all of you Welles-Mankiewicz-Kane purists out there, please know that this isn’t just a straightforward retelling of what went down during the lead-up to the making of that majestic Welles movie.

This is a big, swirling, brilliantly acted, stunning looking, masterfully directed suggestion of what might have happened, brimming with invented dialogue (no one knows what was actually said back then), and drawing viewers in through its mesmerizing black and white photography and a playful musical soundtrack evocative of its time.

Though Oldman is unquestionably the star of the film, at times playing the title character as exhausted, frustrated, worried, happy, or full-out drunk, he’s surrounded by equally strong actors playing equally interesting people. In the 1940 scenes, when he’s writing the script while laid up in bed after a car accident, there are his tireless secretary/assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and semi-agitated Welles messenger boy (in reality his excellent actor and producer) John Houseman (Sam Troughton). In the flashbacks, we meet wealthy and thoughtless William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Hearst’s longtime mistress and mediocre actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Mank’s former boss at MGM, the egotistical jerk Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and Mank’s younger brother and aspiring screenwriter Joseph (Tom Pelphrey).

The part of Orson Welles, done up in a nice imitation of voice and delivery by Tom Burke, isn’t much more than a couple of cameos. Remember, this isn’t about Welles, or about “Citizen Kane,” or even about the life of Herman Mankiewicz. It’s about Mank, in bed, enthusiastically dictating ideas and scene directions and dialogue to Rita, who writes them down in endless notebooks, then later types them up for him to OK or crumple up and toss away. And it’s about the memories that fly through his head - often when he’s inebriated - that might have shaped some of the events that eventually find a home in that script.

The flashbacks also serve to present a picture of Mank, his carefree outlook on life, his disregard for authority, the behavior that made people love him or hate him. His wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) loves him but has good-naturedly given up trying to figure out why. Louis B. Mayer despises him, for too many reasons to list here.

David Fincher, who hasn’t directed a feature since “Gone Girl” in 2014, once again displays a vision and control that’s so rare in films these days. “Mank” is an intricate piece of work about being creative (the writer at work), about the business of making movies (executives thinking nothing of trimming payrolls to cut costs ... while still in the midst of the Great Depression), and about the politics of the day (the California gubernatorial race between muckraker Upton Sinclair and bland Frank Merriam). But with all of its complexities and its relentless jumping around in time, the film’s story is told with a clear-eyed steadiness, and is easy to follow and get caught up in.

What it has to say about Herman Mankiewicz as a human being gets a bit complicated - there will be viewers who love him or hate him. What it says about him as an artist who is proud of his accomplishments can be summed up in a line of dialogue, deftly spoken by him to the Houseman character upon completion of the script, when Houseman has expressed concern of its length intricacy: “I built (Orson) a watertight narration and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job.”

“Mank” premieres on Netflix on Dec. 4.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Mank”

Written by Jack Fincher; directed by David Fincher

With Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard, Lilt Collins, Sam Troughton

Rated R