MANK (Movie Review)

David Fincher’s opus about the CITIZEN KANE screenwriter boasts impressive cinematic aesthetics but fails as a character portrait.

**1/2 out of ****
Rated R

(for some strong language)
Released: November 25, 2020 in select theaters; December 4 on Netflix
Runtime: 131 minutes

Directed by: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Burke, Arliss Howard, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tom Pelphrey, Charles Dance

In select theaters and streaming on Netflix.

For a filmmaker who built a career on disturbing provocations like Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl and The Social Network, Mank is surprisingly limp. An energetic-yet-inert disappointment, it’s one of David Fincher’s biggest artistic swings. There’s just no power behind it.

An evocation of Old Hollywood – designed by and for hardcore cinephiles (and oh, what a glorious evocation it is) – this “making of” story about the writing (and writer) of Citizen Kane never defines itself as a distinct work of cinema in its own right.

Worst of all, as a character portrait, Mank is pretty flat. That’s a debilitating irony, to be sure, given how Citizen Kane is the quintessential one. Despite being dense in historic detail and covering a lot of territory, Mank reveals very little. The necessary information is there, but it’s not well-told. We see all the trees but never the forest.

It’s also difficult to see how more viewings could reap more rewards. The narrative is a meandering mess and lacks an intriguing central figure. If Kane was the portrait of an enigma, Mank is one of a cliché; a troubled artistic genius whose wit, charm and talent are undercut by his self-destructive vices and a collaboration-killing arrogance.

“Mank” was the nickname of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the original screenwriter of Citizen Kane. Released in 1941, it was the debut film from actor / director Orson Welles that, for the bulk of the 20th Century, was crowned The Greatest Film Ever Made. It has since been bumped by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the new 21st Century consensus choice.

Mank aims to tell Herman’s story and how he fought his own demons to eventually craft his magnum opus. (Welles ultimately shared a co-writing credit for Kane, though whether he earned that credit or not remains an eternal debate. Mank says no; this rebuttal says yes.) Herman was the black sheep of a talented Hollywood family; his brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a top director of films like All About Eve, and his grandson Ben is now currently the flagship host on Turner Classic Movies.

A man whose charm and intellect was hampered by drinking and gambling, “Mank” never becomes a terribly interesting study (at least as examined here). He may be a fount of wit with a keen B.S. detector that he’s not afraid to use, but he’s not particularly compelling, either, certainly not by comparison to the towering, enigmatic icon he’s so famous for writing.

Gary Oldman imbues Mank with gusto, as does Amanda Seyfried as actress Marion Davies (another key Kane influence), but Fincher’s intent to replicate the era’s rapid-fire tone is a major miscalculation. That heightened realism turns characters into caricatures and undercuts the true-life bio’s verisimilitude. The more the movie becomes a gimmick the less fascinating it is, save for the brief, dead-ringer moments from Tom Burke as Orson Welles.

Kane was a notoriously fictionalized spin on William Randolph Hearst, the greatest media mogul of the age. He was also a populist who held big (if failed) political aspirations, but you wouldn’t necessarily glean any of that from watching Mank, or fully grasp the import of that influence. The Hearst parallels are established but not fully explored, and they get lost in the convoluted shuffle.

That’s a problem, particularly for a movie about the real-life obsessions that forged a cinematic one.

It’s not much better as a peek into the Studio Machine of the 1930s, either, the kind that chewed up and spit out talents like Mankiewicz, nor do we get an appreciation for his artistic process. We see Mank dictating feverishly but are never afforded examples of how influences coalesced into the tragic Kane parable. The grind and struggle is barely there, and it’s devoid of any epiphanies.

Even the film’s lengthy, labored detour into California politics does little to inform the politics of Kane, beyond the obvious. Thematically, as a movie about ideas and conflicting power dynamics, it’s a bit of mess, to be frank. Mank meanders rather than builds, lacking a unifying vision, purpose, or crescendo.

If you come to Mank with no knowledge of the Hearst backstory or Kane’s other influences, this behind-the-scenes overview is too scattershot to grasp or make sense of. Conversely, for anyone who enters with an understanding of Kane’s background, this simply retreads the CliffsNotes.

In short, if you know Kane’s real-life inspirations, Mank provides little that’s new. If you don’t, it provides little clarity.

The style is this film’s strength, even if also diminished by its digital canvas. Mank embraces the composition and form of 1930s cinema, from rich period detail to old school techniques (like filmed backdrops for car scenes), then assembled with modern sophistication. Aesthetically, it’s a stunning fusion of past and present.

The digital format, however, dulls the entire presentation. The black-and-white images are darker and flatter in digital capture, often murky, and post-production “grain” doesn’t equal film stock texture or contrast. Blacks, whites, and shades of gray blend and blur together, not as sharp or separate as they would be on film.

By all accounts, Mank was a project born of obsession – not David Fincher’s but of his father’s, Jack Fincher (Mank’s sole credited screenwriter). Fascinated with Old Hollywood on the whole and consumed by the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz in particular, Jack’s screenplay is clearly jam-packed with years (and perhaps decades) of research.

Unfortunately, in what may have been a desire to honor a father’s life work, the director-son may have been unable to weed through the minutia and distill the story down into what it needed to be. Whatever passion the dad had for Mank, the son fails to convey it. Or, at least, make sense of it.

As a whole, Fincher is so busy imitating an era that he never properly explores it. Fincher luxuriates in superb period affectation (and are worth watching on their own merits) but offers no insight.

The worst thing I can say about Mank is also the most relevant: it fails to spark any urge to see Citizen Kane or help one to appreciate how that masterpiece came to be. If anything, for those who’ve never seen Kane, watching Mank would probably make them wonder what the big deal even is.

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