Six years after he made his last film, Gone Girl, and transitioned to television, David Fincher is back with Mank, a film that almost everyone will also be watching on the small screen. Though I would normally stand by my thinking that every film is better in a cinema which has led me to see most every major Netflix film to get a theatrical release in such a venue (and indeed I did the same for Mank, driving over an hour to a cinema populated only with one other person who had come with me), in a film about the creation of Citizen Kane, a film the vast majority of us have never seen in a cinema that nonetheless remains a giant of the artform in the mind of most everyone who has encountered it, the monumental nature of the silver screen seems an almost sacrilegious attempt to overshadow the original work and the television feels a more fitting format. Its greatest attack on Citizen Kane, however, comes not in its format but in its rejection of Orson Welles’s status as the great auteur who was responsible for every aspect of the film’s creation, instead positing that Herman J. Mankiewicz was entirely responsible for the screenplay and Welles unsuccessfully tried to completely steal his credit. Still, for all the other films to have emulated and borrowed from Citizen Kane, through its deconstruction of the mythic position of the film, Mank just may be the one that makes Welles’s first masterpiece seem the most monumental. Which will likely mean that those who aren’t particular fans of Citizen Kane, or at the very least interested in film history, will get very little out of it besides a few laughs at witty bits of dialogue.
The film itself is an incredibly rich depiction of an era that, much like The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (both directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a longtime friend of Orson Welles), feels like not just an evocation of a time period, but a film that could have been made then, apart from the occasional interjection of some vulgarities that wouldn’t have passed inspection back in the day but give the film a greater sense of realism. Sets that could’ve been made to look exactly like real locations are intentionally given that 1893 Columbian Exposition gleaming look that, counter to the intent of creating a lavish visual landscape, exposes the limitations of budget and technology found in 1940s Hollywood through an unsettling fakeness. Not only was it shot in period accurate black-and-white, but the digital production was made grainier and scratched in post-production to evoke the aesthetics of film and cue dots were added to the corner of the screen every so often. Even the score, composed by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, was made exclusively with instruments that could have been used in the 40s and presented in a way that sounds somewhat flat but perfectly fits the production. David Fincher’s noted perfectionist attitudes have rarely been so present in every frame.
The most impressive part of the period accuracy, and the film in general, is the quality of the performances, all emulating that quick, upper-class, mid-Atlantic speech pattern found in any movie or broadcast from the beginning of the 20th century and carrying themselves with the same over-corrected posture. Gary Oldman, as the titular Mank, may initially seem to be playing a spin on his lauded take on Winston Churchill as a 1940s alcoholic always found with a cigar in his mouth and an abrasive wit, spending a large portion of the film dictating his words from bed to a young British woman, but these surface level comparisons quickly dissipate as he disappears entirely into another character. He doesn’t just perfect the accent (always an area Oldman excels in) but injects a sensitivity into a man who tried his hardest to prove his intellect at every moment without regard for others and actively sought to hide his good deeds from the people around him, often leading to destruction. Amanda Seyfried similarly melts into her role, looking exactly like a Golden Age starlet and bringing humanity to the ghoulish circles of the media elite. Perhaps most surprising though was Tom Burke, an actor I never would’ve thought could pull off Welles, who manages his particular speech pattern so precisely that I could now imagine no one else.
Regardless of whatever merits it has on the basis of filmmaking quality, Mank’s greatest power in my mind is its poetic reflection on the world that shaped its director. It was an excuse, like last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, to copy the style of influential films, as with a number of shots mirroring those found in Citizen Kane (most prominently with the snow globe being replaced with a bottle of booze) and other classic Hollywood films, and to explore the issues of today through arguments from 80 years ago about socialism and business ethics and the state of the studio system, but most importantly, it came from a screenplay written by David Fincher’s father, Jack, who died seventeen years ago. It isn’t just an indictment of a maybe not so bygone era or a love letter to the films that shaped us all, but a multimillion dollar continuation of a father’s legacy by a son who was lucky enough to be one of the few filmmakers that could achieve the necessary support for such a project. Herman J. Mankiewicz and Jack Fincher may rarely be recognized for the ways they contributed to the modern film landscape but Mank ensures neither will be soon forgotten.
B+ Review 2020 amanda seyfried atticus ross B+ citizen kane david fincher gary oldman gone girl herman j mankiewicz jack fincher mank netflix once upon a time in hollywood orson welles paper moon peter bogdanovich the last picture show tom burke trent reznor trent reznor & atticus ross