“Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl.”
In niche film communities and the cultural landscape at large, director David Fincher has been at the helm of some of the best and most influential films of the last two decades. From the scathing socio political critiques of masculinity and consumerism in the late ‘90s to the skewering of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook in 2010, Fincher has always been ahead of the curve with his social commentary. Couple that with his ability to stay on the cutting edge of the filmmaking process, and it truly makes “Mank” something of a paradox.
Back in 2017 Fincher teamed up with Netflix to make “Mindhunter,” and now he’s delivered the streaming giant its crown jewel for the 2020 awards season. Despite this forward-thinking jump to streaming, “Mank” is a blast from the past, offering personal insight to the making of “Citizen Kane” through the eyes of Oscar-winning screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). For “Mank,” the sole screenwriting credit goes to Fincher’s late father, Jack, who died in 2003, making this a true passion project for the younger Fincher. Ultimately, this tear between duty and passion for “Mank” might be why it comes off as one of the director’s most underwhelming projects to date.
The film is no slouch from a technical standpoint and it will be sure to earn a slew of accolades over the next few months. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver another one of the year’s better scores, leaving behind their typical electronica and post-industrial ambiance for a throwback to the big brass and strings of the period. It’s a refreshing change of pace for the duo, although their work in Pixar’s “Soul” still feels like the superior soundtrack. All of the film’s design elements are impressive, too – from the costumes to the makeup and hairstyling and the classic Hollywood sets. Unfortunately, the flair seen in the craft of “Mank” is rarely ever felt in the living, breathing characters we see inhabit this world for over two hours.
This is Gary Oldman’s most high-profile project since winning his Oscar in 2018, and there’s no doubt he shines. Devoid of a fat suit and heavy prosthetics, Oldman takes over with some of the film’s snappiest dialogue and a particularly memorable monologue during the final stretch. It’s not one of the most memorable performances of the year, but it’s a great reminder of why Oldman is one of our greatest living actors. Other bright spots include Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. Seyfried’s bleach blonde hair pops in the monochrome photography and her Brooklyn accent is exquisite. She provides the only bubbly personality in an otherwise very lifeless story. Dance, on the other hand, could’ve shined more had the film allowed him to, yet Hearst appears in just a handful of scenes and doesn’t have much dialogue until a scene with Mank towards the very end. It is a supporting performance in the truest sense, so don’t be surprised to see the screen legend earn awards attention, either. Finally, the decision to cast 39-year-old Tom Burke as 24-year-old Orson Welles and slap a fake nose on him was… a choice.
Whatever energy and flair the cast puts into the film is unfortunately lost with a script and story that is sorely lacking any sort of momentum. The pacing drags, and the split narrative isn’t even enough to maintain a breezy click. In the present, Mank struggles with writing “Citizen Kane.” He is down, both literally and figuratively. After a car crash in the middle of the desert, he’s propped up at a nearby inn while his assistants and collaborators flow in and out on a regular basis to help nurse him back to health and assist with the screenplay, which he is trying to complete over the course of a couple months. The film flips between this situation and the early-to-mid 1930’s, where Mank is shown navigating the studio system. He drifts in and out of offices and parties, talking to nameless suit after nameless suit. There’s also a puzzling subplot about the 1934 race between socialist Upton Sinclair and GOP incumbent Frank Merriam for the California governorship. The film studios run a smear campaign against Sinclair and enlist their employees in helping Merriam win the election. It all creates an odd reflection of the current rise of democratic socialism on a national scale in the U.S. A dinner conversation about the rise of Nazi Germany and Hitler also feels like it may have been edited to reflect the current political climate. If not, Jack Fincher was simply ahead of the curve. Who would support a creepy weirdo like Hitler, the film asks. “40 million Germans.” Clever, indeed.
Apart from the story lacking any captivation, the formal elements and presentation of “Mank” have been something of a debate and have left many scratching their heads. At almost every turn, Fincher has seemingly aimed for absolute authenticity to the period of “Citizen Kane.” In an interview with New York Magazine, Fincher tells all about how he wanted the film to seem like it was “in Martin Scorsese’s basement on its way to restoration.” He talks about how the sound was compressed to sound like the 1940s and how the music was recorded with old microphones in order to add crackling and sizzling to the audio. Visually, he discusses shooting on super-high resolution and then degrading the image, softening and scratching it to try and capture the old-fashion film reel appearance. It even features the “cigarette burns” that would appear on film reels to let the projectionist know when to switch to the next reel. It’s a pretty remarkable thing to hear the Mono sound mix and to see the work that went into augmenting the image. But if you want to the utmost authenticity and to pay tribute to a period from almost 100 years ago, why not just shoot on film? No matter how much Fincher and Co. “scratch” or “soften” the image, it still doesn’t have the traditional grain of a film image. It still looks like a movie made in 2019. The added touches make it feel more like a skit than a true recreation. It reeks of David Fincher wanting his cake and eating it, too. He wanted “Mank” to have the facade of a classic film without sacrificing his own creative habits and shortcomings. To shoot on film, he wouldn’t be able to do 100 or 200 takes, like has been reported. It would be too expensive and physically impossible. Moreover, it would require Fincher to divert from his obsessive style and let the content truly determine the form.
Maybe Fincher’s sensibilities aren’t suited for period pieces. “Mank” is his biggest miss since 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was another fairytale of times gone by. Simply put, if it weren’t for his father penning the script, I find it hard to imagine Fincher ever tackling this particular story.
While the final product is unlike anything else released this year, and the production values are impressive, it’s difficult to heap praise on a film that uses such talent to tell a plodding, sparkless story.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."