I’m sure you have noticed at some point in your film watching life, but its worth repeating, Hollywood absolutely loves to make movies about Hollywood. From Singin’ In The Rain to Sunset Boulevard to The Artist to La La Land to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, these films not only tend to be big crowd pleasers, they also tend to be huge awards contenders. After all, industries love to pat themselves on the back, right? Released in a month that clearly marks it as Netflix’s prize jewel of the year, David Fincher’s Mank is a new addition to this long and historied sub genre.
Set across the 1930s and early 1940s, Mank tells the story of Hollywood Golden Age screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), covering both the time of his writing the iconic Citizen Kane script and the times that formed his experience and inspiration for the content. From a testing relationship with Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to more complex, heartfelt relationships with some of the women in his life including wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the narrative is one that explores the personal journey of a troubled genius at the same time as shining some satirical light on the machine that was Old Hollywood.
All of that sounds like my perfect idea of a great movie, but there is one crucial problem with Mank, it’s relentlessly tedious. I am massively intrigued by the world of the film, but I am less than enamoured with the way that it has been presented. Don’t get me wrong, Mank is a masterclass in detailed filmmaking that evokes a certain time period and style, from the slightly echoey sound to the fade ins and outs and reel changes, but the whole thing just feels really smug on David Fincher’s part. Even with a few lines of exposition text at the beginning of proceedings, the picture still feels completely inaccessible to an average viewer, and that is coming from somebody who rewatched Citizen Kane the literal night before. There are lots of small and subtle references to the 1940 masterpiece, and this is definitely a companion piece that has a lot of reverence and respect for it, but ultimately I was just left wishing I had watched Citizen Kane again instead. That is a film that features much of the same visual and technical style as Mank, with the added bonus of actually being very enjoyable.
It almost feels like the Fincher become too involved in making Mank a visual homage that he forget to make the thing fun to watch. Notable missteps like artificial cigarette burn marks in the top right corner of the screen to signify that this is an *old film* about the *old times*. Come on, dude. I’m glad I saw this at home rather than in the cinema; it would have made for a much less comfortable nap.
Despite my dislike for the material they are working with, there is no doubting that great performances are given all round by the film’s stellar cast. Gary Oldman is very likeable as Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz, sharp witted and mostly warm hearted with all of the familiar baggage that such a talented mind often carries. David Fincher has obviously gone for best talent over best fit here, because because the 62 year old Oldman playing a 43 year old Mank, however hard living, is slightly far fetched. It wouldn’t have been an issue at all had the film not explicitly made mention of the character’s age! Oldman look and feels at home in this era, and he takes an immediate handle on his sharp dialogue.
As Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried is a bright spark in what is otherwise a mostly dull film. I can see why she is generating Best Supporting Actress buzz because the film really does come to life whenever she is on screen. Knowledge of Citizen Kane is 100% needed to get the most out of Marion as a character and Mank as a whole; if you aren’t familiar with the links between these on screen figures and the figures eventually presented in the Citizen Kane screenplay, then you are missing out on a lot of the film’s nuance and agenda.
Further solid supporting performances are given by the likes of Lily Collins, Arliss Howard and Charles Dance, each providing texture to the universe. Considering the film’s premise, I had expected Tom Burke to be a more prominent presence as Orson Welles, but to be honest his brief appearances didn’t quite have the impact for me that I think was intended.
Overall, I can’t say that I am disappointed with Mank, because I had a feeling this was the reaction I was going to have from the very start. It is a high quality piece of biographical filmmaking, filled with all of the little details that one expects from a David Fincher project, but I just can’t get away from being left entirely bored and unmoved by it. It looks pretty, it is obviously made with crystal clear intention, but it just wasn’t for me. I can already smell the stench of film bro superiority coming off of this one, but don’t be afraid of not liking Mank. Not every film has to be for everyone, and I’m at peace with that.