Awards Season Chasing Oscar 2021 Movies

David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ Has a High Barrier to Entry

Stunning but overstuffed, Fincher's tribute to 'Citizen Kane' may require a study guide.

If you’re reasonably familiar with Hollywood history, then you know Citizen Kane, and the general consensus that it is the best film ever made.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (courtesy: Turner Home Entertainment)

I was first introduced to Orson Welles’ 1941 film in my freshman year of college for a Film Studies course. For me, someone learning to look deeper to the foundation of filmmaking, Citizen Kane was astounding: the acting, the plot structure, the cinematography, all from the bustling mind of a 25-year old. It was beyond my scope to determine whether it was the best film ever made, but I did know that I was watching a masterpiece.

The story behind Citizen Kane is just as engrossing. William Randolph Hearst, the mega-powerful media mogul who served as its inspiration, wielded his vast influence to crush it at the box office. It was a campaign so successful that Citizen Kane, now regarded as the zenith of cinema, only walked away with one Oscar for its screenplay. The two winners, Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, were at loggerheads for years over who truly authored the script. Wisdom suggests the behind-the-scenes drama would make for a good movie in its own right.

Hence why we have Mank, David Fincher’s exhumation of Citizen Kane’s production. His film zeroes in on the hotly-contested screenplay. Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is tapped by Welles (Tom Burke) to ghostwrite the script in 60 days while he’s recovering from a car accident. Aside from the time crunch, Mank is also a cynic and raging alcoholic, burnt by the ravages of the Hollywood studio system, throwing doubt into whether he could complete Citizen Kane. His observations of Hollywood’s machinations, orchestrated by bigwigs like Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and William Randolph Hearst, inform his script, driving him to create world-shifting art.

Mank serves multiple masters, to its detriment. Through the story of Citizen Kane’s scripting, it seeks to restore Mank’s name and effectively declare him the victor in the war over its rightful authorship (while both he and Welles are officially credited as screenwriters, the level of contribution has long been under dispute). Through Mank’s sneering and disappointed eyes, it deconstructs Old Hollywood, exposing its avarice and manipulation of everything from studio day players to regional politics. A significant subplot focuses on the 1934 gubernatorial election and the attempted rise of socialism, which MGM played a direct hand in by smearing Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair through the power of film and proto-fake news.

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in Mank (courtesy: Netflix)

That’s a lot for a two-hour film, without counting the breadth of characters and their stories. Fincher, working from a script written by his father Jack, tries to juggle it all, but the results are uneven. He whips back and forth from flashbacks to show how Mank’s past informed both Citizen Kane and his own self-destruction, and while the pacing is fine, the narrative can be difficult to follow. Some scenes, lacking a discernible purpose or connection to Citizen Kane, can drag. With so many plot threads to weave, some of the more interesting ones, like the story of the luminous Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), are left twisting in the wind. Jack Fincher’s dialogue, razor-sharp and brimming with wit, is one of the film’s strengths, but several pages of the script could’ve been cut without detracting from the overarching story, or stories.

Mank may be overstuffed to the point of distraction, but there’s no denying the film’s incredible attractiveness. It is a stunning all-around production, from the rich black-and-white cinematography to the stunning costumes. Fincher has a clear personal affection for the material, and excellently crafts the world that his father had envisioned. There’s even a playfulness to Fincher’s direction that’s hard to resist, in the charming screenwriting cards denoting flashbacks, and his visual callbacks to Citizen Kane itself. There’s a somewhat-true joke that describing a film as “well-made” is code for “boring”, but there’s no denying that Mank is a masterful construction.

Amanda Seyfried in Mank (courtesy: Netflix)

Mank is also masterfully acted, with a bevy of memorable performances. Two particularly stand out. I will forever begrudge Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance in The Darkest Hour for beating Timothée Chalamet, but he excels in disappearing into a role, and his performance here is no different. Even at the height of his insobriety, Oldman never loses Mank’s sharp intellect and caustic wit, especially amongst the Hollywood sycophants he’s often with. His great performance comes as no big surprise. Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, is a revelation as Marion Davies, actress and mistress to Charles Dance’s Randolph Hearst. She cuts an effortlessly charming figure, embodying the expectations of a 1930s starlet while coloring in between the lines with shades of warmth, empathy, and, as Mank notes, intelligence. Davies and Mank’s friendship is one of the most delightful parts of the film, thanks in part to the surprising chemistry between Seyfried and Oldman, so potent that I wondered whether they would end up together at some point.

If you search for Mank on Twitter, the word “boring” auto-populates. It’s not that surprising. In subject and design, it seems made for a certain kind of moviegoer: one that relishes in Hollywood’s Golden Age, in black-and-white films, and follows the Academy Awards closely (or perhaps is an Academy voter). How much you enjoy Mank will depend on how well-versed you are in its period, as it’s spread too thin to delve into why it or Citizen Kane should matter to modern audiences. If you fall somewhere in the middle like I do, there is plenty to appreciate, like the performances and its production value.

I wouldn’t say that Mank is boring, but it has a significantly high barrier to entry that does it no favors.

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