2020 | rated R | starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance | directed by David Fincher | 2 hrs 11 mins |
In Mank, one of the best directors working today makes a movie about one of the best movies of all time. After a 6 year pause, the deliberate and uncompromising David Fincher returns with a unique perspective into the making of Citizen Kane through the lens of writer Herman Mankiewicz. It’s a unique spin on the bio-pic and a lofty meal for the most ardent cinephiles. A known classic film fan who has offered his takes on movies like Kane and Vertigo for years, Fincher draws a line in the sand with Mank between people who really love Citizen Kane and people who just say they like it because the AFI named it the best movie of all time a few years back. Shot in beautiful black and white, running over 2 hours and moving at a glacial pace, Mank requires a lot of love and foreknowledge of the behind-the-scenes of the making of Orson Welles’ masterpiece as a high barrier for entry. Kane fans only need go beyond this point. Everyone else will be bored out of their minds.
A prolific writer and script doctor all through the 20s and 30s era of the Hollywood studio system’s golden age, by 1940 Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a dried up, washed out, cantankerous drunk. He crosses fates with Orson Wells (a spot-on Tom Burke in what amounts to a cameo), the 26 year old wunderkind RKO has given a staggering opportunity to make a movie with no studio oversight and final cut, who uses that power to hire blacklisted Mankiewicz to pen the screenplay. Mankiewicz, convalescing in a bungalow after a car accident with the aid of a typing assistant (Lily Collins), sets his sights on taking down media giants William Randolph Hurst (Charles Dance), his girlfriend Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and MGM president Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), but struggles with the story to meet his deadline.
I love any bio-pic that doesn’t chronicle the person’s life from birth to death, Mank joins that elite group of biographies like Darkest Hour and The Current War of exploring a person’s life through a singular important event in it. It moves back and forth in time (after Hillbilly Elegy does any movie not?) between Mank writing the film and his increasingly rocky and self-destructive downfall at MGM. What I loved about the movie is how in-the-weeds it gets around the movie business and the surrounding politics, a marriage that links Mayer and Hurst in manipulating the public voting habits. Mank speaks literally to the persuasive power of movies over politics, it’s an industry that can make people think that “King Kong is 50 feet tall and Mary Pickford is a virgin at 40” – it can do anything. Fincher recreates the 30s Hollywood world in all its scum and glory and immerses us in it, weaving Upton Sinclair’s run for governor into the story as the Republican Mayer and the closeted Socialist Mankiewicz secretly undermine each other. If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was Tarantino’s love note to 60s Hollywood, Mank is undoubtable Fincher’s love note to 30s Hollywood. The film’s climax at a Hearst dinner party is one of the better sequences of the year.
The film is rich in detail, we get a character study of Mank’s collapse, his platonic affairs, most notably with Marion, and his brother Joseph who thinks of himself as the Mankiewicz black sheep (though Joe would later strike his own home run with 1950’s All About Eve and No Way Out). Fincher styles the movie itself like one from the 30s with perfectly appropriate fonts, shots and Trent Reznor’s score. It feels like it both homages Kane and as the story of a writer, Sunset Boulevard. There is a scene in this film where Mank is called away from a New Year’s party by a friend threatening to commit suicide that gave me Sunset Blvd deja vu.
And yet, as interesting as much of it is on paper, Fincher seems to let Mank get away from him, or more accurately allow indulgence to take over. The pacing is an issue. Fincher shifts it into park and lets it sputter there for some scenes. A scene between Marion and Mank at the Hearst Castle zoo go on for what feels like an eternity. The movie sets up and then diffuses it’s ticking clock deadline element and established Mank as someone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks so we have no stakes. The movie flounders around without any drive. The thing is, Fincher is usually great at this kind of procedural stuff. He has made a career over turning scenes of people doing research or writing code into high cinema. Zodiac is long, slow, goes nowhere and is nonetheless riveting for it’s entire run. The big difference in those films are the scripts. James Vanderbilt’s Zodiac and Aaron Sorkin’s like-butter The Social Network are snappy and witty. Here Mank is all bark and no bite and it does a lot of barking.
Mank isn’t top tier Fincher. It doesn’t thrill and inspire the way he usually does, and maybe if another filmmaker had made it I would be higher on it, but I greatly appreciate and admire that Fincher didn’t make Mank for the masses. This is a very detailed look into a very specific slice of life for a very specific audience.