After spending the latter half of the 2010s working on the excellent Netflix series Mindhunter, acclaimed director David Fincher has returned to film with Mank, his first feature for the streaming giant. While distinct from his other work in both style and subject matter, it is very possibly his most personal project, finally bringing to life the screenplay by his late father, Jack Fincher. The centrality of that script is obvious from the first time a typewritten scene description acts as a transition marker, and the rest of the production builds around it a classic Hollywood atmosphere, an act of filial veneration that realizes the elder Fincher’s words as the kind of movie that likely inspired them. The consequence of that decision is to make a film that lives and dies by the quality of its writing, and while an overly fractured structure prevents it from ranking with the best of the director’s filmography, it remains an effective, engaging piece of storytelling.
Titled after the nickname of its protagonist, Mank depicts Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he writes the first draft of what would eventually become Citizen Kane, the 1941 masterpiece from director Orson Welles that has often been called the greatest film ever made. Alternating between the two-month writing period in early 1940 and flashbacks of his life throughout the 1930s, the story explores how Mank’s script was shaped by his experience in the studio system, his relationships with yellow-journalism titan William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and his role in the 1934 California gubernatorial election.
For cinephiles, the form of Mank is an easy one to love. Every formal element evokes Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Erik Messerschmidt’s black-and-white cinematography to the monophonic sound design to the score by Fincher-mainstays Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who use only period-authentic instruments. The dialogue shines under all that glamour, as do the performances— Oldman and Seyfried deserve attention come awards season, and the latter should be a Best Supporting frontrunner for what could be career-best work. The casting of Dance as the sparingly-used Hearst is also particularly effective, a reminder that glimpsing a character’s aura of power can be just as impactful as seeing it in action. The film’s best moments are from party scenes (often with some combination of those three actors) that put Mank’s wit on full display, subtly directed to communicate character dynamics that make the exchanges crackle with energy.
Where Mank suffers somewhat is in its structure, and though its time-shifting complexity is likely a nod to Citizen Kane, the effect is ultimately detrimental. The actual story, while a good one, is not difficult to predict, meaning the viewer draws enjoyment from how it unfolds. Holding longer on a few moments, rather than intercutting them with others, would have better served their emotional impact. That said, the thematic exploration of a writer’s relationship to their words is compellingly fleshed out. To cast doubt on Orson Welles’ authorship of Citizen Kane is controversial, as a quick google search will reveal, but it should be noted Fincher did not call his movie American, the original title of Mankiewicz’s draft. He titled it Mank, and it should be read as one man’s journey to learning an ironic tone does not absolve him of responsibility for what he says. The issue of “credit” becomes about more than having one’s name appear on-screen— making the fact that Jack Fincher receives the film’s sole writer’s credit that much more meaningful a gesture.