‘Mank’ Review: Hollywood-Centric Film Both Dazzles and Disappoints
By Daniel Rester
David Fincher has returned to feature filmmaking after a six-year hiatus where he spent time working on television projects. He has teamed up with Netflix for Mank, which was written by his late father Jack Fincher before his passing in 2003. The passion project is a lesser film in the younger Fincher’s filmography, but it’s still a really good movie. That just shows how great of a directorial output Fincher has provided over the years.
Mank tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), and more specifically his involvement in writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941). As he writes the script for the future masterpiece directed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke), we are shown flashbacks of some of the things that influenced “Mank” for the project. This includes time spent with film producer Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and rich newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and how they potentially influenced California politics in the 1930s.
Mankiewicz struggles with thoughts of some of his past relationships and his ongoing alcoholism throughout the film. Despite this, people like to be around him as he is intelligent and usually the wittiest man in the room. As the script for Citizen Kane comes together, there are disputes between Welles and Mankiewicz dealing with the credit of the writing. There are still arguments to this day in real life as to whether Welles or Mankiewicz was the main contributor behind the screenplay.
On a technical level, Mank is close to perfect. It deserves Oscar consideration for cinematography, production design, costume design, sound design, and music score. I especially loved the bouncy, unusual-for-them music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have become frequent collaborators with Fincher. The tunes and the craftsmanship of the other areas truly transport the audience back to 1930s Hollywood, with the images fittingly shown in black and white as well. Such places as Hearst Castle and studio backlots are recreated in detailed ways for the various settings.
Oldman, despite being a bit old for the part, does fine work as Mank. He delivers Jack Fincher’s dialogue with skill, giving Mank’s remarks sting and insight. The rest of the cast is strong as well. Amanda Seyfriend gives a bit of warmth to the film as Marion Davies, Hearst’s younger lover. And as Hearst, Dance steals the couple of scenes he is in with a quietly menacing approach.
Despite the best efforts of the creative team and cast, Mank is let down somewhat by the two Finchers. Jack Fincher’s screenplay bounces around all over the place, trying to copy Citizen Kane in ways of course. Some individual scenes, like a monologue at a costume party, are dynamite. But the structure of the scenes together feels more scattered than arresting.
There are various setups that could have worked as the throughline for the film in order for it to be more gripping. The consequences of Mank’s alcoholism, the fighting over credit for the screenplay with Welles, or the tense relationship between Mank and Hearst could all have worked. Instead these things are just touched upon (Welles and Hearst are underwritten) and blended in with bland scenes of pretentious political talk, a random suicide subplot, etc. The throughline we do get is Mank drying out at a remote location while laying in bed and writing.
Director Fincher plays most of the scenes in straightforward but handsome ways (there is one flashy election night scene though that’s stylistically interesting). He paces and stages individual conversations and moments well, but he never finds scenes to hook the audience emotionally. Fincher is usually so good at displaying characters with obsessions, so characters like Mank and especially Welles should have been a perfect fit. Instead he keeps them in service of the plot most of the time, rarely letting the actors dive deep enough in humanizing the various Hollywood legends.
Mank may be a bit hollow emotionally at its core, but it’s never terrible and there’s still a lot to admire about it. The film looks and sounds amazing and Oldman is occasionally mesmerizing. Individual scenes play brilliantly too. I just wish it was more focused and engaging as a whole.
As is, Mank is director Fincher’s weakest film since Panic Room (2002). Even so, his weaker efforts are still better than most director’s finer efforts. Hopefully he returns to masterful form with his next feature though. And hopefully we don’t have to wait six years for it.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 2h 11min