David Fincher's first film in six years proves to be a slight let down
Citizen Kane (1941) is considered a pioneering film in the history of cinema, by many considered the best film ever made. Curiously the film didn’t invent any new cinematic techniques or storytelling gimmicks, but rather was able to employ them to the best effect. Much as how the most famous early film in color is remembered as The Wizard of Oz (1939) despite there being many other color films before. The making of Citizen Kane was an arduous one with a battle over the true authorship of the film stretching into the future up until today. Many claim that Welles was the true author of the script, with his revisions proving key to the story (this is the most heavily documented theory), however, others argue that the script Herman Mankiewicz provided was nearly untouched and Welles unfairly placed his named alongside for co-authorship. It is this period in time and the life of Mankiewicz that is explored in David Fincher’s latest film: Mank (2020).
Mank focuses on Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his struggle to write a screenplay for the up-and-coming film star Orson Welles’ (Tom Burke) first film. Given that he’s severely crippled due to his heavy alcoholism, gambling, and a car accident in 1940, Welles has ordered Mank to be placed out in a cabin in the woods, where he can write the screenplay with the only company of a typist (Lilly Collins) and a nurse (Monika Gossman). The film also jumps back to 1930, and we see the ensuing decade as the Great Depression hits Hollywood, Mank fights with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), gets embroiled in the California Gubernatorial race of 1934, and meets newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) who will prove inspirations for his Citizen Kane script.
This is Fincher’s first feature film since Gone Girl (2014), though he has been collaborating with Netflix in TV series such as House of Cards (2013-2018) and Mindhunter (2017-). Mank is the first film in a new four-year deal Fincher has signed with the streamer, and as with many Netflix films, it proves to have absolute creative freedom. Fincher had been wanting to make Mank since the 90s when his late father had written the screenplay (which remains credited solely to him). Many studios passed over the film, fearing its marketing viability, being filmed in black-and-white and focusing on an arrogant and unlikeable screenwriter. I applaud Netflix for continuing to take this risky stance of financing passion projects, as they’ve proved to deliver some solid gems like Roma (2018) or The Irishman (2019). However, Mank isn’t as effective and complete as one would expect from Fincher, whose been on an incredible streak of amazing films since Zodiac (2007).
Perhaps it’s the emotion surrounding the screenplay that has restrained Fincher from tightening up certain aspects of the film. The screenplay is not bad, in fact it is quite strong, but it does seem to indulge in certain aspects a bit too much. Jack Fincher clearly wanted to have an emulation of the story of Citizen Kane and Mank. This leads to the similar structuring style, of jumping back and forth in a man’s life, using it to try and discern his character, and watch his rise and fall. Jack Fincher is able to elucidate an incredible wit and sharpness from Mank’s dialogue, who seems to always have a quip or a pun at the ready. It is in this latter aspect that I felt the need for revisions or corrections from David Fincher. The puns and word-play are fun at first but become ubiquitous and obnoxious, seeming to be a way to show off rather than create character. The script is also confused as how it feels about the Hollywood period it is depicting. There seems to be a mix of nostalgia and condemnation. While this mix of feelings can certainly be pulled off with proper contrasts in certain scenes, they seem to be sloppily spilled throughout Mank with no clear structure or conclusion. The jumping between Mank’s life is a smart nod to Citizen Kane, but it isn’t as well conceived, leading to certain confusion in regard to the connection between scenes or the progressive reveal of Mank’s true character. And herein lies another failure in the film’s script, it isn’t able to dig into who Mank really is.
For a biopic, Mank is only able to focus on the outer shell and appearance of its subject. It’s structure and focus are too dispersed to bring about any incisive insight. In fact, even the Citizen Kane plot seems rather pushed aside, cheaply used as a ploy to string together the decade-long following of Mank’s life. Jack Fincher is certainly able to show how arrogant and indulgent his title character was, but we never dig into his motivations, his emotions, or his true meaning of self. For a film that seeks to pay its respects to Citizen Kane it feels as if they’ve missed the core point of that film, missing the key “rosebud” aspect.
David Fincher as a director is able to provide some coherence to the whole affair and his expert hand greatly improves Mank. The nods to old Hollywood are much better infused technically, not only with the black and white coloring, but also with the grainy filter that is applied to the visuals, and especially the sound recording. The dialogue has been recorded in a monoaural sound mix, which is how Hollywood films pre-1950s were recorded; this lends Mank the kind of soft and fuzzy sound of dialogue and music. It proves to be a neat detail that helps deepen the homage that Mank is setting out to achieve. There are also clever and very subtle references to Citizen Kane itself, which prove to be fun, but not distracting Easter Eggs for viewers to find. One of the best of these is a scene showing an empty liquor bottle falling from Mank’s hand, much like the snow globe from the titular character in Citizen Kane does. Fincher is also able to extract some well-calculated performances, not only from Oldman, who is spectacular and unrecognizable as always, but from the likes of Collins and Seyfried as well. Both actresses are still criminally sidelined in Mank, as they have been throughout their career in cramped roles, but they are able to hint at and allow a peek at their true talent and capabilities. I only hope that the flicker of scenes we see from them here prompt more complex role offers for them.
In the end, Mank is a bit of a let-down in Fincher’s filmography. The script was demanding a tightening-up, but Fincher seemed to be unable to comply. This leads to problems regarding the entire exploration and core motivation of the film. Thankfully, the craft and technical prowess of Fincher and his team are able to bring about a rather spectacularly manufactured film, still able to bring about some enjoyment and pensiveness for viewers.