The long-awaited Mank (2020) bedazzles with its visual and directorial artistry, and it’s as much of a David Fincher movie as it could get. Nevertheless, Herman Mankiewicz’s story lacks the gut-punch to claim a masterpiece title.
Do you know the saying that almost every writer lends a piece of himself or herself to the story? In the case of Citizen Kane (1941) – honed as the ultimate masterpiece of the American cinema – its author poured his heart and soul into it, expressed years of bitterness, and great dissatisfaction with California magnate William Hearst and alike figures.
David Fincher’s Mank (2020) won’t tell you that unless you do your reading. Neither will you learn anything about Orson Welles, the bonafide director who was denied the sole authorship over Citizen Kane (1941), and even how much of an ordeal was that collaboration for both gentlemen. So what is Mank (2020) about?
Encapsulating two separate timelines, Mank (2020) depicts the creative writing process of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the author of Citizen Kane (1941). We also learn through flashbacks the story that inspired this script – Mankiewicz’s rise-and-fall career, and his relationship with California’s creme de la creme.
David Fincher isn’t any stranger to turning not-so-exciting stories into phenomenal movies. Two of David Fincher’s most acclaimed projects – Zodiac (2007) and Social Network (2010) – dramatized a tedious hunt for a notorious serial killer and a rich boys’ brawl over a billion-worth business idea. Both of these true stories turned out to be top-notch thrillers. Next to David Fincher’s unhinged direction, as well as the embedded perfectionism that drives every frame he conjures up, the common denominator in both cases was a masterful script.
Ironically, Jack Fincher (the father of director David) never wrote a script in his life before or – sadly – after Mank (2020). As a kind of homage to Citizen Kane (1941), his depiction of the events paints Mankiewicz in similar colors as Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of Welles’ movie. Told in flashbacks and reflected on through the lens of a separate timeline, Mank (2020) aims at killing two birds with one stone. At the same time, Jack Fincher also glues the story to certain political events, thus further establishing the ties between Mank (2020) and Citizen Kane (1941). It all looks good on paper, but…
Upon taking a closer look, Jack Fincher’s script delves into the conundrums of ornate language and swims in an abundance of subplots, names, and connections. None of that, however, revolves around a well-established, single point of interest. Mank (2020) operates without a clear goal to reach or any particular message to convey. The sense of disorder grows as Jack Fincher loses the track of all the dots, and switches his focus. What begins as an insight into a creative writing process grows into a period drama and a Hollywood postcard from the 30s. Finally, it ends with a dramatic clash of two artists – a climax that is not grounded in the script.
Despite those numerous twists in the tone and emphasis, Mank (2020) rarely manages to spark excitement too. We never learn much about Mank’s life or even the story-making pains he endures. Therefore, I found it hard to connect with the protagonist. Any relationship he develops feels only drafted, and due to the complexity of the dialogues, deciphering their meaning’s often tedious. All of the flashbacks, cuts, and bits blend into an uninviting, hard-to-follow story that delivers little of the much-needed emotional cargo.
What does continuously engage throughout the whole film is its meticulous design and visual artistry. From clothing to interiors and the filmmaking sets we see, everything’s beautifully time-stamped. Fincher’s crew brilliantly constructs the period setting. This shouldn’t come off as a surprise though, because attention to details constitutes David Fincher’s trademark (and obsession, as some say). Still, Mank (2020) is remarkably beautiful to look at.
So is Fincher’s fine-grip direction. Fincher’s pacing works well, and manages to keep Mank (2020) afloat despite the troublesome script. Furthermore, actors comply with the be-perfect-or-go-home rule. Lily Collins is a standout, as an assistant of Mankiewicz who often stands in opposition to the eccentric screenwriter. In the shadow of the main man is also Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, whose character – an intelligence-over-looks type – cunningly finds herself a spot in the world dominated by white men.
While Collins and Seyfried owned their supporting responsibilities, many other names deserve credit too. Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s bother Joe, Charles Dance’s evil turn as William Hearst, or Tom Burke’s tiny episode as Orson Welles himself – to name a few. The entire cast shines, but the true star is Mr. Oldman.
Gary Oldman steals the spotlight amid the many sublime performances. Mank splits up into two separate beings. One is a scrappy blue-eyed boy of the big Hollywood producer, but one who always sticks to his guns too. Underneath the wisecracking hides a revolutionist, a me-against-the-world type who picks fights with the top-shelves – even the hands that feed him.
The second side of the same coin tries to explore Mankiewicz-recluse, a man immersed in the “tragedy” of writing. Oldman once again proves bulletproof, but Jack Fincher’s writing withholds from revealing the true conflict our protagonist experiences. Perhaps the process of reaching this point is too long. Frankly, it’s not until the script of Citizen Kane (1941) is finished that we learn about Mankiewicz’s deeply-rooted issues with it.
Returning as Fincher’s orchestra are Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Contrary to their earlier endeavors that flirted with atmospheric ambients and electronic compositions, this time the duo explores entirely new areas for them. Mank (2020) vividly paints the image of the 30s thanks to the sounds of experimental jazz that’s sometimes crossed with cinematic music from the vintage days. However, their usual bliss is technically missing, creating cacophony rather than a score that’s significant to the narrative’s pacing and mood.
Near the finale of Mank (2020), Gary Oldman delivers a hypnotizing monologue that feeds on what’s best in the moviemaking industry. And at times, Mank (2020) oozes excellence on all fronts. It’s still David Fincher after all. But from a director whose name is synonymous with the best slow-burn thrillers and masterful tension, this tribute to Welles’ film simply falls short in comparison.
Reversed Grade: 3.5/10
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jack Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance