The films of David Fincher tend to obsess over the genius of severely tragic and damaged characters. So it’s no surprise that Mank, a period biopic now on Netflix about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, has been on Fincher’s cinematic to-do list for many years. His father, Jack Fincher, wrote the screenplay decades ago, but he passed before ever having a chance to see the film brought to the big screen. Now, arguably still at the peak of his filmmaking career, David Fincher returns to deliver this biting treatise on the making of Citizen Kane, without ever really exploring the classic film’s most fascinating details.
In order to effectively transport the audience back to the 1930s and 40s, Fincher elects to adapt the style of the film to its source material’s time period. It’s presented in black and white, of course, but it also boasts a superb score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (marking their fourth consecutive collaboration with Fincher), which is composed entirely from period-specific instruments. Additionally the cinematography and editing is clearly designed to evoke the classic Hollywood aesthetic, where plenty of scenes end with fades to black and quick cuts are almost completely avoided. Bizarrely, this choice of artistry ranges from fully authentic to half-measure, with scattershot scenes existing in a film more clearly wrought by modern hands. But that’s probably the least of Mank‘s problems.
The film explores a complicated decade in the life of one of Hollywood’s most complicated screenwriters. Mankiewicz (played in the film by Gary Oldman and referred to throughout as Mank) is a brilliant, chatty satirist capable of elevating the IQ of any conversation he happens to intrude upon, making him a sought-after party guest for sheer entertainment value alone. This inevitably puts him into the social circle of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the infamous newspaper mogul who would later inspire Mank’s iconic titular character of Citizen Kane, portrayed by its “boy genius” director, Orson Welles. But Mank’s enthralling wit also places him in the welcome company of Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a silent-era actress who saw a steep dip in her career during this time period, which coincides with the Great Depression.
If you’ve watched enough films about screenwriters having to hit a deadline for their screenplay, you might recognize the relatable anxiety of knowing what’s to come next. They’re not going to finish it in time, right? It’s odd, though, because this tension is played for an audience that very well knows Mank miraculously pulled off this screenplay — one of many examples of how Fincher tries hard to inject stakes where there really isn’t any to be found, despite this film ostensibly being presented and paced as a dramatic thriller. The story eventually steers, of course, into the cautionary advice Mank begins to receive from many at the time who don’t want his screenplay to make an enemy out of Hearst, though this would also prove to happen for Welles, the more visible face of the film. But within the Hollywood bubble, everyone knew this was really Mank’s pen guiding Citizen Kane‘s scathing portrait of a genius, but tragic figure (sound familiar?)
Fincher uses the film to lambast Hollywood for its treatment of counter-cultural minds like Mank, particularly in his personal politics, which he is forced to swallow out of a desire to stay employed. But Fincher avoids painting Mank as some kind of heroic figure through and through. His alcoholism, gambling debts, and social awkwardness are heightened to almost embarrassing lengths, another half-measure to “keep it real” without committing too far one way or another. The result is a hollow portrayal. Despite his obvious prowess as one of Hollywood’s greatest living actors, and under the leadership of one of its greatest living directors, Oldman is surprisingly miscast, here, and he’s not alone save for Seyfried. On a technical level, Oldman’s performance couldn’t be easier to appreciate, because it balances heady lines of dialogue (some of the best in 2020) with a physically carefree energy that only just barely avoids becoming socialist Jack Sparrow. So it’s not the writing, it’s not the performance, and it’s certainly nothing to do with the cinematography. Why does Mank fail to spark new love for its own subject matter?
Well, first of all, it will spark something for film critics. This is their art exhibit, after all. For those of us already wined and dined in this coastal world of cinematic inside jokes, it’s unnecessary to stuff a film with too much emotional catharsis when many of us in this niche medium are content to browse the halls of references primed to tickle our deep knowledge of film history and its quirky foibles. One scene in particular featuring Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) performing financial empathy for his MGM “family” would be a bit dull if not for the wonderful fun of picking out Lionel Barrymore and Shirley Temple in the crowd. Without this gamed knowledge going in, however, Mank isn’t properly equipped to sustain its 131-minute runtime for anyone even remotely indifferent to its revolving door of references, brilliantly written and delivered as they are.
I’m not suggesting casual audiences aren’t smart enough to “get” Mank. Those who stick with it out of pure curiosity to see why the latest awards contender is picking up momentum for a Best Picture Oscar will almost certainly understand Fincher’s point about bucking the conventional wisdom and fighting hard for your creativity to flourish when just about everyone else has a problem with it. But there are some aspects of filmmaking too subtle and unexplainable to get across why films like Mank will be met with blank stares by non-critics. And it’s because in this movie, they can subconsciously pick up on its identity crisis.
If you’re to make a film blasting the Hollywood process, by all means. If you’re to make a film dedicated to the love of this era, please do. But when you attempt both in full spirit, while also aping the once-revolutionary techniques of flashbacks and complicated narratives without doing a single thing to innovate upon what’s come before, well, there’s an absurd disconnect, then, between what’s on the screen and what most people will feel walking away from their Netflix account. We love these movies, but let’s not so easily love how they were made. That is what Mank wants to be about. But it’s the equivalent of an intellectual trying to tell you an interesting story, but they get hung up on their preamble and idea of what they might find interesting because they think you don’t know much about it, thus telling you inconsequential anecdotes in the lead up to what you really want to hear, only for their final delivery to be so rushed and unsatisfying, you wonder why they went to so much effort in the first place.
Or, to keep with the museum illustration, imagine a modern artist designing an entire exhibit around skewering Impressionism by using its own tools and brushes against it in very specific ways. Yes, art critics and its ardent enthusiasts will pick up on all the little jokes and call it authentic to the era, but they’re still just jokes. The true potential of art is to show someone a version of truth and open up whole new worlds for how they can think and feel about a medium beyond what they’ve seen before and maybe even reframe what they already know. They should finish Mank wanting to devour Citizen Kane for the first time and enjoy endless books and audio files detailing the history of this time period. I want to believe this is what Fincher might’ve wanted to do, but I struggle to assume it was ever his focus. Because the byproduct is a film for the people who’ve already gone to the trouble to do their research. At that point, what’s in it for them beyond the most basic recognition of a thing you already know exists, maybe with some flash in the pan?
I have no doubt a slim contingent of curious Netflix browsers will happen upon Mank and find themselves swept up by its period details and affection for a job well done. It is, after all, still a “good enough” movie on plenty of merits. But I suffer for the greater number of audiences who will try desperately to love Mank but find themselves unable to articulate why it so quickly becomes little more than a marbled memory. The day is yet to come when we will experience a true cinematic force addressing Citizen Kane and its unlikely impact on show business, for good or ill. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer to see the film of such a lifetime.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).