Mank movie review: David Fincher’s Netflix film is a deeply personal tale of a writer and his greatest work
There is a romance to Mank that seems like a cinephile’s love letter to the motion picture, but it is tinged with the maturity of a seasoned artist.
How delightfully ironic it is, that Mank is David Fincher’s first feature since Gone Girl, six long years ago. In the interim, Fincher put his creative energies into developing diverse content for Netflix (House of Cards, Mindhunter, and Love, Death & Robots). His return to the feature film, again releasing on Netflix, is a lush, monochrome tale that pays homage to a time gone by in Hollywood – that sparkling mythical bubble of exuberance, excess, dreams, and power.
Based on a script by Fincher’s late father Jack, Mank breathes gorgeous, black-and-white cinema into a few pages from the story of writer Herman Mankiewicz, specifically related to how he came up with the first draft of a script titled American, which Orson Welles would turn into Citizen Kane (1941) — a film that, in its time, shook up the idea of what a Hollywood motion picture ought to be.
Indeed, while Mank can be watched without having watched Citizen Kane, the film would not only make more sense if you have watched Citizen Kane earlier, but would be an even more enriching experience if you watch or revisit it just before Mank. For starters, it will prime you for the period experience, not to mention providing a little more context into the character that is driving the passions of a writer, as he pours his soul onto paper. (Citizen Kane can be rented for viewing on YouTube.)
Like Citizen Kane, which introduced it almost as a novelty for classical Hollywood storytelling at the time, Mank follows a non-linear structure (and the film helpfully provides the flashbacks with a text inscription in the format of a scene header from a script.) You go back and forth between the present — 1940 in the film — when Mank is cooped up with a broken leg and alcohol for company, tasked with writing a script in 60 days; and the past — incidents from his life, involving names such as Louis B Mayer (the last M in MGM), legendary producer David O Selznick, and William Randolph Hearst, the American publisher on whose life the character of Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane is loosely based.
Mank is Fincher’s second biopic after The Social Network, and both follow a similar format of alternating past and future from the perspective of each other. Yet the two films could not be more different from each other. In fact, Mank stands apart from Fincher’s prior work quite distinctly. There are no thrills, no fantasy, no crime. Unless, of course, you count the thrill, for a writer, of just having finished a script, the fantastical nature of Hollywoodland, and the crime of not using the power of the visual medium to fulfill its potential in society.
The film instinctively feels so much more personal than any Fincher has made before, because it is his first movie about the movies. There is a romance to it that seems like a cinephile’s love letter to the motion picture, but it is tinged with the maturity of a seasoned artist. Hollywood is elevated to a pedestal, but with a realist’s world-weariness attached.
You can tell that Mank is more a writer than a screenwriter. He is employed at a studio that pays him a salary to write when they need him to. The words he uses matter. Like most writers, he is an observer, and like most men past a certain age, he is a cynic. And what he observes, what he feels, finds its way into this script that he has taken on at this point in life, years into his life, possibly washed up.
This time he is told that he has a free hand, and he has agreed to not being credited, so he will not have to take responsibility for it. The story of the credit for the script of Citizen Kane is a saga in itself, but the ending was ostensibly a happy one — Welles and Mankiewicz shared credit as well as the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (incidentally the only one the film won, after being nominated in nine categories).
Mankiewicz’s experiences with newspapermen and the corridors of soft power burnish his insides, and when the chance comes, he bares it out with alcohol and cigarettes for company. We do not get to see much about his relationships, though they are around for a certain context, a rootedness. A decade of observing the people around him, the society he inhabits, creeps up on him when he is in isolation, and finds its way into his work. Thus, in many ways, Mank is a relevant, contemporary film.
There is a sequence in the film, involving manufactured news around a gubernatorial race, possibly affecting its outcome, that would not have made as much sense to the audience barely 20 years ago — when the script for Mank was already in motion — than it would today. But make no mistake, despite its sometimes unbelievably stunning cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, Fincher is not showboating with this one.
He lets the character of the erudite, unfiltered writer be the fulcrum of each scene, each disjointed episode of the writer’s life over a decade, all culminating into an epic script. It is tricky, having to show the dynamic tussle between how a writer lives, and how a writer writes. There is no clear line between the lived experience and the words it leads to, because that is just not how it works in real life.
The political and the personal have a relationship that almost seems to need a mediator like cinema. Mank, in a way, seems like Fincher’s contribution to the discourse, through the medium he knows best. It does not really seem like life, but it does not feel like a watching a movie either. Mostly, it seems like a few days on the sets of a movie, which is after all made by living, breathing people.
Gary Oldman’s turn as Mankiewicz is one with no surprises. The veteran actor is as good as one would expect him to be, and he is on screen for the most. Some of the minor characters do stand out as well; you will certainly be left wanting for more of Charles Dance as William Hearst. There is a reason why this man played Tywin Lannister – he commands the screen like few do. In fact, another major credit for the film is the way the lines are spoken. So true and authentic to the cinema of the time, which is what matters most in a film like this.
Surprisingly at first, but not in retrospect, Orson Welles’ character (played by Tom Burke) stays largely out of it. In the context of what led to the first draft of a game-changing film, Welles is just a cinematic interpretation of a deadline. The words come from elsewhere. Still, the idea of Welles in the background is enough to make an impact, even with limited screen time.
Mank is a good film that is not for everyone. It seems like a complete antithesis to the work that Fincher has been doing these last few years, and though Mindhunter is criminally under-loved, anyone who is a fan of the show would know that it would be impossible for a something like that to not be a grueling experience for everyone involved in it, particularly the lead creator. The opportunity to make a film like Mank, then, seems like life’s gift to Fincher, and he gratefully turns it into a calm, staid, un-Fincher motion picture.
Mank is streaming on Netflix.
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