Netflix Releasing: Mank (2020) - Reviewed

Writer-director David Fincher has been trying to bring his late father Jack Fincher’s script chronicling screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane for nearly three decades.  Originally meant to follow-up The Game and proposed as a black-and-white photographed venture back in time through the Golden Age of Hollywood, the project continued to be postponed indefinitely until the folks at Netflix stepped in around late 2019.  This would be the first film in nearly eight years the perfectionist filmmaker would helm and to date it is clearly among his most personal works. 
With Academy Award winning actor Gary Oldman at the forefront as the titular Mank, this ensemble period piece was intended as both a love letter to a bygone era of film production as well as dissecting the creative process with razor sharp precision.  This was to be Fincher’s Ed Wood if you will which also played around with b&w photography and the presence of Orson Welles.  Considering the pedigree of Fincher and painstaking perfectionism, the stakes for Mank were indeed very high.
Unfortunately, in spite of all the technically proficient filmmaking on display (shot in 2.20:1 no less), the magnetism of the subject matter and the strength of the performances, something felt amiss within Fincher’s grand return to the silver screen.  For all of the bravura moviemaking magic and capital A acting in the world, The Battle Over Citizen Kane somehow proved to be more immediate and compelling than Fincher’s porcelain finish.  But that’s not to say there wasn’t much to be enjoyed here.
Let’s start with the film’s painterly and milky black-and-white palette which recreates many of the visual techniques of Welles’ film while working in Fincher’s own motifs and geometric fixations.  While director of photography Erik Messerschmidt and Fincher strive for rustic imagery replete with cigarette burns at every reel change, the film still bears the director’s hallmark slick monochromatic imagery despite being set within the world of 1940s Hollywood make believe.  Then there’s the monoaural sound mixing coupled with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ first official orchestral score, making it all sound like a celluloid print.

Then there are the performances.  Gary Oldman of course is always great and though the character didn’t feel too dissimilar in portrayal from that of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour you hardly mind as you’re watching.  Oldman captures the otherness of Mank as a fish out of water in a strange land of Tinseltown.  Aiding Oldman is Amanda Seyfried as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress who goes for those melodramatic old school Hollywood notes who sparks a light friendship with Mank who is sympathetic for her plight but undeterred from his journey to write his cinematic takedown of Hearst.  
Also turning up are Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer who brings a Bob Balaban quality to the head of MGM.  And as Hearst himself is Charles Dance who hasn’t reunited with Fincher since Alien 3.  All in all, the ensemble period performances are top notch.
The ingredients for a masterpiece are all here for the plentiful helpings with enough laborious passes over individual frames and shots to make Kubrick blush.  And somehow despite all the chess pieces falling into place, Mank moves at a languid and, dare I say it, meandering pace.  What was captivating about The Battle Over Citizen Kane somehow came across here as an unfocused and occasionally tedious lark.  What was shaping up to be another Fincher masterpiece kind of ended on a frustrating whimper.  It stumbles rather than soars.
The most frustrating thing about Mank was given my own fascination with the subject of David vs. Goliath filmmaking concerning a lone figure taking on a tyrant, none of it seems to register for those in the know or the uninitiated.  This film should be a cinematic home run and is clearly an impeccably crafted work made by one of modern cinema’s most fastidious masters. 

In the end Mank can be a worthwhile experience but never once did I feel drawn into Mank’s boozy yet snappy personality and always remained on the outside looking in.  Fincher can be (and will be again) exhilarating despite Mank mostly leaving viewers feeling indifferent as to why Citizen Kane remains an important chapter in film history.

--Andrew Kotwicki