Reel Dad: David Fincher's 'Mank' offers a glimpse behind the 'Citizen Kane' lens

Movies love movies about movies.

From “Singin’ in the Rain” to “The Artist” - and many times in between - filmmakers crave the challenge to share what happens behind the camera from the intensity of relationships to the intrigue of agendas. And people who watch what’s on the screen welcome the chance to go backstage.

David Fincher’s “Mank” bursts onto the 2020 cinema scene with a deliciously detailed exploration of the egos behind the 1941 film classic “Citizen Kane.” Working with a screenplay that his father, Jack Fincher, wrote in the 1990s, the director of “The Social Network” recreates a world long gone by where a few good and bad men could control what people experience in a movie house. Without exaggerating the drama behind the drama, Fincher celebrates the magic that a camera can create when pointed in the right direction.

On the surface, “Mank” - a nickname for Herman J. Mankiewicz - focuses on the immediate period after the screenwriter was injured in an automobile accident. As he recovers, the film suggests that actor/director Orson Welles asks him to put together script ideas for a new film about a larger-than-life character on the media stage. As Mankiewicz struggles to confront his physical pain, he remembers key moments in his past when he connected with journalism mogul William Randolph Hearst and actress Marion Davies. Suddenly the memories of yesterday begin to influence today’s work as the script begins to shape a lead character many later believe to be modeled after Hearst. The film became “Citizen Kane,” a classic that earned Mankiewicz and Welles an Oscar for its screenplay in 1941.

What makes all this so much fun at the movies is the distinct visual style that Fincher consistently applies. Rather than make a film that looks like a 2020 visit to the 1930s and 1940s, he painstakingly creates a cinema world of that period. Nothing is left to chance. Production designer Donald Graham Burt uses every set piece to create a visual sense of the period and the cinematography of Erik Messerschmidt makes us feel we are in the moment while retaining a stylized separation from the present. composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross celebrate the orchestral style that defines film scores of the 1940s. And Fincher, with the eye of an artist and the precision of an engineer, transports us to a time when the movies inspired our curiosity about people and places larger and farther than we can touch. While people who know movies will immediately recognize the characters on screen, Fincher makes sure his story is accessible and entertaining for anyone to absorb and enjoy.

Dominating “Mank” with another award-worthy performance is Gary Oldman who won an Oscar a few years ago for playing Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Using his full acting range, Oldman makes us like Mankiewicz, feel sorry for the man’s weaknesses, and appreciate the brilliance of his talent. The actor refuses to make Mankiewicz a victim of his challenges; instead he finds the small moments that make us feel we get to know this fascinating man.

Yes, movies love movies about movies. And “Mank” proudly joins the exclusive club of films that make us want to see more about what happens behind the camera. This is one of the best films of 2020.

Summary: Mank

Content: High. Director David Fincher delivers a fascinating look at the people and politics behind the cinema classic "Citizen Kane."

Entertainment: High. Fincher's meticulous approach takes us back in time to a period where what happened on screen significantly influenced daily life.

Message: High. Amidst all the well-staged chaos, Fincher focuses on the personal challenges of a creative man who simply wants to be heard. And noticed.

Relevance: High. Any chance to visit what happens behind a movie camera creates a welcome entertainment.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt a chat with your older children about how the movies have changed over the years.

“Mank” runs 2 hours and 11 minutes. The film is rated R for language. The film begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 4.