David Fincher’s Mank arrives with a modicum of anticipation and fanfare, and yet it would have to be his least accessible film to date. For cinephiles, it presents a utopia of delights, yet there may be little in it for casual moviegoer. That in and of itself is not a problem, since the film has been released to Netflix (following a short theatrical run in some markets) and it is there for the taking for – presumably – those with an interest in old Hollywood.
It tells the story of Herman J Mankeiwicz (Gary Oldman), who won an Academy Award for writing the screen classic that is Citizen Kane. Rather than depicting the tumultuous production of that film, Mank focuses on his relationships with key Hollywood figures and the events leading up to and around his writing process. Those who anticipate an in-depth exploration of the making of Citizen Kane will be disappointed, although should they persevere with the film, they will be greatly rewarded.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of Citizen Kane, one wonders – in today’s cinescape of superheroes and space operas – just how many people know of the film itself, let alone the politics surrounding its production, or even the reputation of its director, Orson Welles. And to that extent, there is little doubt that Mankeiwicz, Louis B Mayer, David O Selznick, William Randolf Hearst (and the assortment of historical figures on offer in Mank) will mean anything to unassuming viewers. It is perhaps in this regard that Fincher’s incredibly personal film might be of educational benefit to those who are curious enough.
The film has gestated with Fincher for over 30 years and was first tempted in the late 90’s following his thriller The Game, starring Michael Douglas. It is believed that Fincher’s insistence on shooting in black and white, as well as the proposed vintage aesthetic, is what discouraged major studios. The script was written by his late father, notable journalist Jack Fincher, who had previously written the book from which Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was adapted, and Mank‘s depiction of Orson Welles and the dispute over Citizen Kane‘s script credit was of great debate and conjecture. To say that this film’s production was divisive is an understatement, which makes its arrival and various parallels to Citizen Kane all the more provocative and powerful.
Gary Oldman plays Mankeiwicz and devours every morsel of script. This is most definitely an actor’s film and Oldman solidifies his place as one of the greatest character actors of all time. Portraying the washed up, drunken and overly opinionated legend of his time, with a moderate sense of grandeur, his performance feels nostalgic, not only for the era being depicted, but also for his own diverse career. Throughout the film there are hints of past portrayals, from his villainous Mason Verger in Hannibal (2001), to Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), as well as various other performances. Mank is a showcase of his talent and one suspects that Fincher, with his use of lighting and camera angles, is aware of this fact. The supporting cast includes Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Arliss Howard as Louis B Mayer, Charles Dance as William Randalph Hearst and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, amongst many others, and each of them command their respective screen time.
The first and most obvious point of note of Mank is the black-and-white cinematography, which is scrumptious. It’s Fincher’s first feature with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who lensed the filmmaker’s Mindhunter series, and it’s incredible work. You could watch the film without sound and still come away from it invigorated by the depth of texture and attention to detail. Pulling no punches, Fincher’s determination to recapture the look and style of Citizen Kane is remarkable. Not only is the use of shadow and light used to maximum effect, but so too is the non-linear structure of the story. Just as Citizen Kane hopscotched between the past and present, so too does Mank. And being a biography of an Oscar-winning writer, the audience is ushered between flashbacks with the clever use of screenplay parentheticals.
And then there’s the film’s musical score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (of Nine Inch Nails), whose work with Fincher on The Social Network earned them an Oscar. Reznor’s music has featured heavily in Fincher’s work since that alarming introductory credit sequence in Se7en, and their creative partnership is perhaps the most effective melding of minds since Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Reznor and Ross’s music in Mank is unlike any they’ve crafted before and the restraint and resistance to jarring electronic tendencies is impressive. By stepping outside of their own self-built box, they have proven themselves to be master composers and deserved of any accolades that go their way.
Mank is exceptional and it will remain on the minds of fevered cinephiles for years to come. It adds to the handful of films that are debated as Fincher’s best and its longevity ought to be assured. Just how it will resonate with the average moviegoer is another question; the film’s aesthetic and subject matter may very well be a barrier for many.
‘Mank’ is now streaming on Netflix and can be seen right HERE.