All indications showed, upon the announcement of David Fincher’s latest project — his first fully in monochrome, his first for a streaming service, and using a script written by his late father, Jack Fincher — that this would be a stirring Hollywood tale brimming with the sharp performances and rich visuals for which this modern auteur is best known. The resulting film, Mank, certainly boasts daring cinematography and meticulous period design, but the experience is noticeably blunted – by disappointing performances from Gary Oldman and numerous other cast members, by poorly-measured processing of what could have been striking monochrome imagery, and by a script that simply cannot avoid cliché and self-absorption. It’s a sometimes charming effort, and notable for its earnest, politically progressive subplots, but the assembled parts do not add up to a coherent or commendable whole, for frustratingly simple reasons.
From the outset, the opening titles of Mank set the tone, leaning into a fanciful, retro-styled kitsch. The rest of the film keeps this up, pouring head-over-heels affection for Old Hollywood into every speck of the frame, including the schmaltzy addition of artificial cigarette burns and film-stock lags on anachronistically pristine visuals. As the story flits between 1940 and the ten years previous, interstitial titles are typed onto the screen during each transition, a stale effect which interrupts the flow of the montage every time it is used. There is a nodding irony to this glitz, however, as a significant part of the film’s meta-narrative targets the Hollywood sheen that forces a marketable fairytale out of real-life’s most mordant and painful stories, including ones like the gaudy, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Mankiewicz, as Netflix has made sure we all know by now, is one of the unsung heroes of Hollywood, especially considering his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, is most often solely associated with its director and star, Orson Welles. Much of Mank follows a deliberate formula, which distills the masterpiece in question into elements individually addressed and explained through its screenwriter’s personal experiences — it is intriguing, as a document of such an iconic piece of cinema, to witness how much of it began directly with Mankiewicz’s proximity to its real-life inspirations, including Marion Davies, Louis B. Mayer, and of course, William Randolph Hearst himself. Fincher’s approach belies a palpable enthusiasm when dramatizing scuttlebutt between lofty Tinseltown power players, including lavish sequences within executive offices, L.A. landmarks, and Hearst’s sprawling behemoth of a home, San Simeon. Amanda Seyfried and Charles Dance, as Davies and Hearst respectively, are dutifully game to embody this period reverence, but are given few moments to hold their own against the eponymous anchor of the proceedings.
Oldman plays the man, known to all as Mank, with a wit and candor too good-natured to hate, but often too acerbic and self-aggrandizing to love. When not valiantly whipping rhetorical deprecation at Hollywood higher-ups, he’s either remarking on the productive nature of alcohol or stumbling drunk through almost every scene; why or when he became soused is rarely relevant. When hired by Welles in 1940, he endures a broken leg and remains bed-ridden as he attempts to find his authorial voice, alternatively badgering and charming his assistant, played fleetingly by Lily Collins, in the process. Overall Oldman’s is an odd and cloying performance that shifts between cliché wino behavior and implications of the same mythical, misunderstood genius which much of the film attempts to dismantle.
On that note, in many ways the movie is an anti-auteurist statement, firmly and resentfully dedicated to cutting the myth of the omniscient genius off at the knees. The most obvious casualty of this approach is Welles himself, often referred to only as “The Wunderkind” by those who either sycophantically or skeptically work in his orbit. Played here by Tom Burke, Welles is presented as a young brat casually convinced of his eminent greatness, who callously insists that Mank write him a masterpiece, but not receive a co-author’s credit. The emphasis upon Welles’ arrogance is feverish to the point of feeling overblown, a matter not helped by Burke’s visible dissimilarity to the man, despite an uncanny impersonation of his voice. What’s more, the film’s admonition against revering auteurs as larger-than-life greats feels inconsistent with the script’s fawning appreciation for Mank’s own larger-than-life qualities, resulting in a statement that truly points more fingers at itself than at its targets.
This inconsistency is mostly balanced, however, against a healthy disbelief in the Hollywood dream machine, which the Finchers diligently depict as a factory of lies, exploitation, and conservative messaging at its core. The script includes ample references to the shifting global power dynamics over this stretch of history, including alarming reports out of Hitler’s Germany, ripples of anti-Communist vitriol in American society, and socialist movements gaining traction but facing insurmountable odds when pitted against the forces of a morally bankrupt media landscape. The film emphasizes how Hollywood delusion routinely downplays these matters, and irresponsibly manipulates the public for the convenience of those in power. Keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Bill Nye as organizer Upton Sinclair, whose presence introduces a subplot reminiscent of Edward Norton’s recent Motherless Brooklyn, another mid-century-set noirish drama meant to remind us that America’s proclivity for corruption really is ageless.
Speaking of noir, the visuals are giddily rendered to recall this hallowed aesthetic, though most frames are overly opaque, cluttered, and flat, once again causing the film to feel more like a chintzy pastiche than an assured piece of work. In fact many visual elements feel trite, including the re-use of visual beats from Citizen Kane and some pallid lighting tricks when transitioning between time periods. What should be and could have been an impressive assertion of Fincher’s directorial wit and Mankiewicz’s overlooked relevance instead resembles a bulky collection of hastily-executed good ideas.
Films of this ilk have been popular for a while now. Mank slots in neatly within the likes of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock and Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable, which also retell pertinent chapters from the lives of lauded cinema personalities in the aesthetic and narrative style of their heyday. However, these films tend to adhere perilously close to hero-worship and self-satisfaction over their own compelling potential, and though it’s a disappointing conclusion to draw, Mank repeats this tendency. All in all, the effect is much less remarkable than it should be, even given the film’s amusingly blunt ending, which seems to throw its hands up and urge the audience to echo another cinema legend in its exhausted nihilism: forget it, Mank, it’s Tinseltown.