Mank is a little more niche than David Fincher’s usual work: a black-and-white 1940s pastiche drama about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote (or perhaps solely wrote) Citizen Kane. Based on a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, it’s a true passion project—an idiosyncratic love letter to Golden Age Hollywood, to Herman Mankiewicz, and to Jack Fincher himself. But despite the film’s impressive attention to Citizen Kane-era stylistic detail, I found myself watching Mank as if from a distance, failing to drum up an emotional connection to the characters at hand.
DIRECTOR: David Fincher
Gary Oldman stars in this technically accomplished but rather meandering drama about ‘Citizen Kane’ screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, borrowing the fast-paced dialogue and visual quirks of a black-and-white 1940s movie.
Gary Oldman stars as Mankiewicz, depicted over two periods in his life: Partying with business tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in 1934, and writing Citizen Kane to a tight deadline in 1940, bedridden due to a broken leg. Hearst was the inspiration behind Citizen Kane‘s egomaniacal protagonist Charles Foster Kane, while Marion Davies—a B-list comedy actress—is often linked with the character’s second wife, an unexceptional singer whose career is forcibly bankrolled by Kane. Mank partly serves as a rehabilitation effort for Davies, making it clear that she and Mankiewicz were friends. He didn’t want people to think the character was literally her.
Speaking with a brassy New York accent, Seyfried portrays Davies as charming, sympathetic and goofy, with a nuanced affection toward Hearst, who she refers to as “Pops.” Davies’ talents (or lack thereof) as an actress are not relevant to her value as a person. Looming and grim-faced, Charles Dance plays to type as the lord of the manor, whose wealth could easily squash Mankiewicz like a bug. He keeps Mank around because he enjoys the man’s witty repartee, unaware that he’ll one day inspire Mank’s greatest work—an extremely unflattering legacy.
Like The Artist‘s pastiche of silent film, Mank echoes a very specific era of American cinema. Shot in black-and-white (although filmed digitally, in a modern aspect ratio), it offers exquisite 1930s/40s costumes and production design (Trish Summerville and Donald Graham Burt) coupled with old-school cinematography and editing techniques. My one unexpected quibble is the music, composed by the usually-brilliant Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Faced with writing a big band score with typewriter-noise accents, they’re well outside their comfort zone, and by the end, I found the music irritatingly repetitive. Happily, the cast’s vintage accents and performance style are definitely on point, delivering reams of fast-paced dialogue in honor of Mankiewicz’s reputation as a wordsmith. If you enjoy films where people drop witty epithets while pointedly exiting a room, then oh boy will you love Mank.
But for all its creative ambition, Mank still trips over a couple of my least-favorite biopic tropes: young women telling Great Men how great they are, and scenes where a litany of minor historical figures pithily introduce themselves. Honestly, it felt like the first quarter of this 130-minute film was just dozens of men telling each other who they were.
Amid all these mannerly performances and beautifully choreographed walk-and-talk scenes, Gary Oldman provides the heart and soul. Most viewers will not be familiar with Mankiewicz’s history, but the short version is this: Starting out as a journalist, he went on to write (or rewrite) dozens of Hollywood movies in the 1920s and ’30s, often without credit. He was known in the industry for his satirical, sardonic wit, both on the page and in real life. And he was rather political, which is Mank‘s most eye-opening piece of commentary about the creation of Citizen Kane.
Where a more straightforward biopic might linger more on Mankiewicz’s alcoholism or creative struggles, Mank offers a broader picture of his political surroundings. Back in the 1930s, he watches studio bosses stay rich while ordinary people suffer the tail end of the Great Depression. This overlaps with a potentially game-changing election: socialist Upton Sinclair running for governor of California. Mank is downbeat leftist among confidently capitalist Hollywood bigwigs, with William Randolph Hearst as the top dog. At the same time, Hitler is rising to power in Germany.
In 1934, Mankiewicz attends parties where rich acquaintances dismiss Hitler as a distasteful conversation topic, while in 1940 he’s paired up with an English secretary (Lily Collins) whose husband is already fighting on the front lines. On that note, I remain underwhelmed by Mank‘s small handful of female characters. Tuppence Middleton plays “Poor Sara,” a self-aware riff on that old biopic staple: long-suffering wives of tormented geniuses. Seyfried delivers a magnetic performance in relatively little screentime, but Collins’ cut-glass accent has to do a lot of heavy lifting as she ushers Mank through the creative process for Citizen Kane, delivering lines like, “I expect more of you,” and “You write for the movies because you’re super at it!” It’s also frustrating to see yet another historical film cast average-looking middle-aged men and beautiful younger women as direct contemporaries. Oldman (62) and Seyfried (35) are both playing people who were born in 1897, and Middleton (33) should be roughly the same age, playing Mankiewicz’s wife of 20 years.
Your enjoyment of Mank may be influenced by your own level of nostalgia for Old Hollywood. Not necessarily the films themselves, but the overall concept. Hollywood loves to self-cannibalize, celebrating movies about the process of making movies – especially if they revel in vintage scandal and glamor, ignoring the more distasteful scandals of today. From Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain to Hail, Caesar! and Once Upon at Time in Hollywood, these offerings range from affectionately well-observered to obnoxiously onanistic. (Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood Netflix series, I’m looking at you.) Mank is a cinephile’s playground of classic Hollywood references and stylistic tics, hinging on a transformative role for Gary Oldman. Yet for me at least, it lacked the pleasure of the films it attempts to copy—the era of His Girl Friday, Frank Capra and early Hitchcock, and of course Citizen Kane itself. Some of Mank‘s more talky scenes were actually boring, which isn’t something I’d say of Fincher’s contemporary work.
At times it felt like Mank was straining itself to be witty. It gets lost in its love of quips and punchy exposition, highlighting a unique issue with the film’s creative process: Jack Fincher completed the screenplay in the 1990s, and died in 2003. David Fincher adapted it as a labor of love, celebrating his personal and creative relationship with his late father. In that context, one might understand his reluctance to make more dramatic edits. An ironic problem considering Mank‘s depiction of writing a film under the watchful eye of a visionary director.
Mank arrives on Netflix on Dec. 4.