David Fincher directs Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins in this Hollywood biopic following drunk cynical idealist screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz hobnobbing with the elite, framed by the writing of his first draft of Citizen Kane which lampooned those he witnessed.
Maybe we should have been warned this was going to be two hours of a souse in bed, making bad bets, rather than the Second Coming… A minor curio that cannot hold up to the weight of critical adulation (slim pickings for Oscar-fare this year) and personal expectations. Sue me: I was overly excited for Fincher’s first film in 6 years. What we get is a muddled bunch of gossipy half truths that anyone who has read more than one article on the inspiration behind Citizen Kane knows isn’t the big picture. Orson Welles barely plays a part (pointedly) and the battles Mank belligerently lines up for himself to win are resolved quicker than he has a chance to put his drunken dukes up for. Some of the glib fast solves for the dilemmas churned up are galling in their efficient tieing off.
This, like pretty much every film Fincher has directed since Alien3, is the study of an outsider assimilating into a flawed microcosm with disruptive emotions and philosophies. Whether Detective Somerset or Ripley, Tyler Durden or Zuckerberg… Fincher likes a protagonist trying to maintain order in a world even if it means burning the complacent belief system or corpulent structure that exists down. They are heralds of a better method of living, who feel apart from the current ways. Tellingly they nearly always persevere to the credits in a draw rather than a win. The alien is defeated but the cost is martyrdom. The killer is revealed but not caught, countless lives are ruined not just by his violence but by the grinding lonely obsession needed to crack the case. The accused husband is innocent but now trapped in an abusive marriage. The system wins, the best you can do is stay true to your values. Mank ends with a similar no sum game. It warps history to make it seem like a Pyrrhic victory but who am I to say that’s a negative. I love Braveheart and JFK even if they swerve into fantasy for the sake of narrative slickness.
We are left with a film where in the first half we are introduced to a menagerie of real life figures… some of whom we get no chance to invest in. Some of whom we shouldn’t bother to, as they make so little impact on the proceeding. Fincher’s father wrote this pet project, Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button’s screenwriter Eric Roth is a producer (and I’d wager uncredited script doctor). Like Roth’s other big Oscar projects I’d say he is responsible for the race around the museum nature of the experience. Here’s a bunch of famous names! Did you do your homework? Watch Kane in advance? Scout relevant Wikipedia stubs? Good… you still won’t care.
Mank looks sumptuous but doesn’t convince as a visual homage to the era. The monochrome focus is too crisp, modern in all but the absence of colour… Janusz Kamiński’s grainier yet rich work on Schindler’s List or Stefan Czapsky’s vibrant Ed Wood are more convincing period cinematography pastiches. Fincher should have known film over digital was the essential ingredient for what he is attempting to achieve. There are mannered touches that take you out of the story… cigarette burns to signal the end of a chapter rather than the messy unpredictable changing of a reel. The time hopping structure stops you from settling into one persuasive story arc. Fincher here is too OCD to match the script’s messy randomness.
Mank isn’t a terrible film, it just cannot reach its prestigious ambitions. Oldman tries to hammer some consistency into his character’s schizophrenic action and inaction. You couldn’t say he makes the old soak loveable. Arilss Howard does fine work as Louis B Mayer but again the movie struggles to tally the powerful man with the toadying scenes between him and Hearst. Was he a puppet? ‘Cause he really feels like a puppet master whenever we aren’t being told as such? And then there is the one true glimmer of stardom. Amanda Seyfried is luminescent as Marion Davies. Whenever she is on screen the project becomes an entertainment. I’d be surprised if Mank does much better than a lot of obligatory nominations at the Academy Awards, Seyfried though has to be the clever money bet for actually holding a statue at close of play. She probably won’t need to thank the credited (and uncredited) screenwriter though. Just make a note to praise Trish Summerville’s top costume design and you are golden, Amanda.
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