Mank (Review)

David Fincher’s Mank is yet another example of Netflix clearly letting a filmmaker make the exact film that they wanted. There is an entertaining irony here, seeing as Mank chronicles the writing of – and inspiration for (in two discrete timelines) – Citizen Kane, focusing on conflicts between filmmakers and executives who all want to dictate what the film should and should not be. This meta observation is one of the few interesting points about what is, quite frankly, a rather dull and inessential feeling film. This is a clear David Fincher passion project: an ode to filmmaking (if ode is the right word) adapted from a script written by his late father. And while this, as a context, is quite sweet, the film as a work merely disappoints.

Strangely, a key flaw of Mank is its bold, and very well realised, aesthetic. Though I would not argue Mank is a particularly great looking film, it is striking and deliberate. It is all about the movie business – the studio movie business of the 30s and 40s in Hollywood – and therefore apes the aesthetic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It is an interesting decision for a director who was on the cutting edge of a new aesthetic in cinema, with films like Se7en and Fight Club inspiring scores of filmmakers (especially on a stylistic level). But, of course, Fincher is nothing if not an immaculate technician. Mank is an impressive pastiche, the black and white cinematography evoking old-Hollywood rather than the sharp-aesthetic of much modern monochrome movies. This being said, that does not make it the most visually appealing film – it feels of an era, but it feels limited by having to be of an era (it is a nice comparison with the more original black and white of Se7en, where things were intentionally darkened to heighten the core themes; here, the intentionality is linked to imitation rather than the film’s content). It also all just rings very false. The decision to tell the behind the scenes story of a moment in Hollywood through their filmic aesthetic just creates artificiality. The story seems to all centre around exposing realities, about stripping away a filmic gloss: by seeing the real life characters that supposedly inspired Citizen Kane, the movie magic is taken away; by showing how the film was written, and touching upon the conflicts that process created, yet more magic is stripped. A style that is defined by gloss, and is so overtly referential, is forced to cohabitate with a narrative that is its thematic opposite. The same is true with the soundtrack. It is Reznor and Ross collaborating with Fincher again, and it sounds like a classic, jazzy movie score of the period – and that is the problem.

The central issue of Mank is that the style of the filmmaking is at odds with the film that is being made. The film that exists is a consummate pastiche, no surprise from infamous perfectionist David Fincher, but the narrative needed something different. As presented, the film just feels inherently artificial and somewhat farcical. It is hard to take it seriously and the film demands to be taken seriously. This is an exposition heavy film full of digressions and lingering strands. In reality, the film feels consistently in search of a narrative. The fragmented chronology, which juxtaposes the younger life of the eponymous Mank (Gary Oldman) with his older self writing Kane, is an interesting way to tell the central story. Seeing the writing process alongside the inspiration makes perfect sense; irritatingly, the inspiration story is far too wide. There is just a lot going on here and it does not fit cleanly into a filmic narrative, which again is at odds with the traditional aesthetic trappings. Mank aims to be an extended character study – using the elements of Citizen Kane’s storytelling to tell the story of the rise and fall of its central figure. The story it maps onto this is just not clean enough, no matter how neat the structure may be in theory.

The result of all of this is a film that is just incredibly flat. At 132 minutes, it feels more than its length and never really comes together. The film spirals out and out, in a madcap way that matches the madcap protagonist – but there is nothing about that approach that we have not seen before. The performances are fine, bringing a lot of spark into small roles, but it all feels very constructed. The overwhelming amount dialogue makes the actors feel too much like marionettes – or vessels for dialogue – as opposed to performers. And even when there is spark, there is not much life. Mank is presented as a caricature, full of bon-mots that hide an emptiness. It is a stock character and it is presented well enough, but this is all a part of how inessential this film feels. This is Fincher’s big return to filmmaking, it is linked to one of the most celebrated films of all time, and it just does not deliver. There is the lingering feeling throughout that the most interesting story is not being told – frankly, the world through Mank’s eyes is not that compelling. Some of the more compelling moments are snapshots of Orson Welles (Tom Burke), and when we are presented with Orson Welles’ in absentia Oscar speech at the end I was left feeling that I wanted the film to be about him (or more about him). There is room for an interesting film about the creative struggle between Mank and Welles – the two acting as fascinating foils for each other. This ditches the Welles and goes full Mank, and is weaker for it. There are interesting insights but even these are weighed down by artificiality. It is a very well made and technically impressive film, it just is not a very good one.

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