If you don’t know the name David Fincher by now, then you probably shouldn’t consider yourself a cinephile. But if you want to start your path to the career of David Fincher, then his newest film “Mank” is definitely where you don’t want to start from. That’s because “Mank”, is a black and white love note to cinephiles that will appeal most to the movie buffs. Fincher who is best known for directing “Se7en”, “Fight Club”, “Panic Room”, “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” and “The Game”, just to name a few. Fincher is a filmmaking auteur with an impeccable visual and groundbreaking filmmaking style.
He is a notorious perfectionist known for his grueling number of takes and has meticulously reconstructed Hollywood of the 1930’s for his newest feature film from Netflix. Fincher has been working with Netflix for the better part of four years as the executive producer and director of their original series “Mindhunters”. Now Fincher’s first feature film since 2014’s “Gone Girl” is also his first for the streaming service.
“Mank” is certainly the best looking movie of the year, with Fincher paying homage to Orson Welles and his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane”. Fincher conveys a vintage Hollywood vibe throughout it’s two hour and fifteen minute run time. “Mank” is the exact kind of movie that is sure to nab a handful of Oscar nominations, certainly for best screenplay and of it’s technical achievements.
David Fincher’s “Mank” is not just a love letter to Old Hollywood, but a love letter to his father Jack Fincher, who began working on the screenplay decades ago and had passed away in 2003. Fincher has always wanted to make “Mank” for years and while it has no re-watch factor (at least not right away). It still manages to be a richly layered Hollywood tale with robust performances by more than a half-dozen veteran actors playing real life Hollywood legends.
“Mank” is anchored with scenes at a secluded ranch in Victorville, California where the downtrodden Herman J. Mankiewicz (Great Grandfather to TCM host & film critic Ben Mankiewicz) is recovering from a car accident and about to dive into a screenplay at the behest of Orson Welles (Tom Burke in a deft performance). A German housekeeper, Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), will tend to Mank’s health care, while a prim and proper young British secretary named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) will take dictation. From time to time, Welles’ colleague John Houseman (Sam Troughton) will stop by to make sure Mank is writing and not drinking.
The byplay between Mank and Rita, who has a husband fighting in the war, yields some of the best exchanges in the film and allows us to see Mank’s human side, which is usually lacking in the flashback sequences to the 1920s and 1930s, where the talented but aggressively obnoxious writer alternates between charming and totally alienating just about everyone whom he comes in contact with.
Mank always acts like the outsider on the inside, with the likes of studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), MGM exec Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and the powerful media mogul William Randolph Hearst (an excellent Charles Dance), who would become the inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane. Amanda Seyfried sparkles as Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies who longs to be taken seriously and finds a kindred spirit in Mank.
By 1940, his drinking and his self destructive behavior had worn thin and though he was only a couple of years past 40. Mank was in danger of washing out entirely until he was given one last great opportunity, courtesy of the 24 year old Orson Welles to write the screenplay to “Citizen Kane”.
Gary Oldman is no doubt, one of our finest actors and while he has some wonderful showcase moments, at 62 he’s too old to be playing Mank in his 30s and early 40s. Granted, by the time Mankiewicz started writing “Citizen Kane,” years of his hard living had taken a toll on him, but it still doesn’t work with Oldman’s noticeable age. Despite that, Gary Oldman is in peak form that should earn him an Oscar nomination.
It felt like I wasn’t watching “Mank”, like most movies, from the outside looking in. It felt as if I was really there, as if David Fincher had drenched me in black and white and threw me into the 1930’s Hollywood. His style is a knockout, filming it as if it were a film straight from the golden age of Hollywood, complete with cigarette burns to indicate reel changes and a mono soundtrack that gives everything a faint echo. Although the use of digital photography and Fincher’s decision to shoot the film in his preferred use of 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio (he should have used the 1.33:1 aspect ratio instead), are of not the era and is a contemporary drag.
Fincher’s “Mank” can be compared to the best movies about Hollywood. While it doesn’t have much of a re-watch value, “Mank” is on level to Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood of the 70’s, in “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”. Fincher’s film is just a better movie about movies than Tarantino’s. But neither is still as great as 2011’s best picture winner “The Artist”, about 1920’s Hollywood during the silent era.
The stories surrounding “Citizen Kane”, the impact on director Orson Welles, it’s boozing screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the entire Hollywood system are well known and perhaps more interesting than the movie itself. But the challenge for David Fincher is to make “Mank” an entertaining re-examination of the movie business’ Golden Age of big studio dominance, that will appeal to a wider audience and not just us cinephiles.
Unfortunately it’s something that Fincher doesn’t accomplish, since “Mank” is designed for the movie aficionados. If you’re not interested in or at least urged to watch “Citizen Kane” before or after, you might as well skip “Mank”. But, if you’re game you’ll be rewarded with one of our great filmmakers at the height of his visual power and a glimpse into the history of the movies and the way they really can shape the world we live in.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)