The newest film from David Fincher, Mank, is here and it's most certainly not what we expected from the director. It's a black and white, semi-autobiographical biopic of writer Herman J. Mankiewicz as he works on the screenplay for the acclaimed film Citizen Kane.
It's been six years since Fincher made his last film, Gone Girl. This new feature could not be more different. I can't overstate how much it stands out as an odd entry in Fincher’s filmography. To be clear, odd does not mean bad. Just different.
The praiseworthy aspects remain Fincher's devout commitment to creating precise visuals with near-perfect shot construction. One particular scene is when Gary Oldman's Mankiewicz, who prefers to go by the titular Mank, strolls onto a film set while nursing a hangover. Everything is meticulously crafted, and Fincher creates a unique feeling of being in a fantasy world that also happens to be sharply witty.
The film pays homage to old Hollywood and works to demythologize it, taking some worthy shots at the time's reactionary power players. There's little romanticizing of the era, even as it borrows many visual cues and references.
That's where the story presents a problem. By taking on Citizen Kane, one of the most influential films of all time, the story is filled with a feeling of melancholy as Mank agonizes over working on something he doesn't know will be his masterpiece.
The weight of that impending history hangs over the story as we see Mank mostly bedridden with Orson Welles, played by an underutilized Tom Burke, who essentially drags the film he wants out of the writer in rapid time. It's not a healthy environment, but it works for Mank, making it all the more tragic when he feels his work is slipping away from him.
Much of the film takes place in flashback, punctuated by the clacking of the typewriter that quite literally sets the scene. Mank becomes disillusioned with Hollywood and misses his life as a playwright. The film attempts to balance these flashbacks with the present time of Mank hammering away at his screenplay, even while sometimes hammered. The dueling timelines are bookended by co-stars Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins, who are sadly left aimless as side characters with little to do.
That balancing act is moderately successful, but it still lacks the crackling energy of Fincher's earlier work. It's often slower-paced and meandering and dragged down into a few too many scenes. Thankfully, the film does find its footing as it nears the halfway point.
One particular revelation happens when a studio creates a propaganda film against then-candidate Upton Sinclair, played by famed science guy Bill Nye. Mank is alarmed at the propaganda and is one of the few who pushes back against it. This moment speaks to the power cinema has to shape minds to nefarious ends, a power not to be taken lightly, especially when it preys on people's fears.
Mank understands this, which imbues him with a kind heart, a thing many of his colleagues lack. He's also the only character who takes the rise of fascism in Germany seriously, and the story eventually reveals that he assisted people in escaping the horrors to come. His deeper morality is hidden under a snarky, often callous exterior.
The degree to which this conflicted life impacted his alcoholism is left mostly in the film's subtext. There's a feeling of distance from Mank that Mank can't quite shake. In his later years, a quote he wrote—"a rat in a trap of my own construction"—adds insight into how he struggled, but that only comes toward the end of the film. Fincher embeds this critique: At one point, Mank himself says, "you cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one."
It isn't Fincher's best film by any means, but it may be his most reflective. An orchestral score by longtime collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compliments this reflection nicely. That Fincher's late father is credited as the writer makes for a somber tone that may have contributed to the film's emotional state.
All this is to say, a flawed Fincher film is still a really great film.