Since the ‘90s, David Fincher has been one of the most prolific American directors. Each decade Fincher has directed, he delivers incredible works such as “Fight Club,” “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” After directing “Gone Girl” in 2014, he took a step back from film to focus on television with “Mindhunter” in 2017. Directing seven episodes of the serial killer detective drama, Fincher developed a great relationship with Netflix and he produced his latest film with the streaming giant, “Mank.”
The film stars Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz, a screenwriter who is disenchanted with the glamour of 1930’s Hollywood. His time working for MGM Studios wore him to the bone and his playfully combative friendship with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, provides him all the background to start up a new screenplay. The story of “Mank” follows the writing of “Citizen Kane,” which is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.
Written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, this central conceit is actually the basis of a larger discourse over the inception of “Citizen Kane.” Mankiewicz shares a co-writing credit with the Director of the film, Orson Welles. Welles got his start as a radio announcer and is best known for his broadcast of, “War of the Worlds.”
Some say that Welles had no involvement in the writing, that he had just swept in at the last minute, gave some tweaks then whisked it off to production. Film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay “Raising Kane” details this argument quite eloquently. This takedown of Welles’ involvement angered filmmaker Peter Bodonavich to pen “The Kane Mutiny” for Esquire magazine in defense of his mentor. It is a messy situation, one that does not have a clear answer, but for the sake of “Mank,” Fincher focuses on Kael’s narrative.
Sadly, this film isn’t as interesting as these pieces of criticism from the past. The film feels more like a history lesson than a look at this flawed screenwriter. Gary Oldman is a talented actor, as he has melted away into roles in the Dark Knight series, the Harry Potter series, and his Oscar winning role as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” In “Mank,” his performance is shockingly by the numbers. With a period-accurate accent, a wispy comb over and cartoonish stagger, Oldman feels like any other actor playing an old timey drunk.
The far more interesting character is relegated to just a couple of scenes — Tom Burke’s Orson Welles. Welles had a mystique to him, as the larger-than-life filmmaker who alternated between studio darling and risk taking outsider; he is looked up to by many. “Mank” sees Fincher playing with that mythology. We first meet Welles through the perspective of Mankiewicz in a medically induced stupor. Welles is sporting a cape and large hat that was his real life costume in his documentary “F for Fake” that would be made decades after “Citizen Kane.” It is an iconic look that works with the heightened realism of that moment. Sadly, the film never lives up to that exciting cinematic allusion.
The best thing about “Mank” is the original score composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. Previously the duo has worked with Fincher on razor sharp scores for “Gone Girl” and “The Social Network.” For “Mank.” they ditch the electronics for period accurate music and bombastic swells. It is rightfully nominated for the Best Original Score Academy Award.
“Mank” was nominated for 10 Oscars overall, and ended up winning just two Oscars for cinematography and production design. The former is far from earned as the black and white aesthetic is rendered bland from shooting on digital when shooting with actual film would make it look more dynamic. The latter award is worth it as the evocation of the early 20th century is gorgeous, especially the recreation of the Hearst mansion.
Overall, “Mank” is disappointingly by the numbers for a filmmaker who made his mark with gritty exciting films like “Se7en” and “The Game.” Here’s hoping Fincher gets back to his roots soon.