Mank ★★★


My eighth Fincher.

Naturally, as we find ourselves part and parcel of a parade through the backlot of a film studio, we come to the sight of laborers and artisans hustling through fake streets, men and women costumed with, in relation to one another, anachronistic attire: a heavyweight bodybuilder toating foam dumbells, a safari guide tending to an unseen lion in a cage, and a troupe of women scantily-clad, their hats topped with a generous feather. Perhaps there is no greater Hollywood image than that, one that finds itself firmly situated in director David Fincher's latest work, Mank, a story about a story, the pen-and-paper race by alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he—while bedridden following an automobile accident—races to complete the original screenplay for Citizen Kane, the film so often touted by many to be the greatest film ever made.

As much as the film is a biographical study of Mankiewicz—either lovingly or disparagingly abbreviated to "Mank" depending on the family, friends, and enemies who announce (or tolerate) him—Fincher's latest, fully submerged into the artifice of Classical Hollywood cinema, also charts a goading, probing cross-section of 30s Hollywood. Consciously so, for the narrative often flashbacks and flashforwards across the 30s in order to seek the ostensible influences (personable or zeitgeisty) that played a part in the construction of Citizen Kane. "Write what you know," Mank is told early on. And he does just that, obscurely burglarizing the personalities of people in his past. Among the minor and major heads of a cinematic Mount Rushmore, the company surrounding Mank include David O. Selznick, his brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Josef von Sternberg, Louis B. Mayer, and of course, William Randolph Hearst, the unobliging schematic for newspaper megalomaniac Charles Foster Kane.

Interestingly, in this current age of heightened political partisanship, these Old Hollywood, media-mogul fat cats find themselves the lab rats of Fincher (and Fincher's late father, Jack Fincher, who penned the script in the late 90s; a screenwriter writing about a screenwriter), as the major centerpiece of the film concerns the 1934 California gubernatorial election between author Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle, and briefly played by Bill Nye) and GOP candidate Frank Merriam. In one of the more memorable sequences of the film, Mank—a supporter of the democratic Sinclair, and employer of a mouth that always speaks its mind—attends an MGM election night party at the Trocadero Nightclub. Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM, is a stout Republican, and Mank's career so often rests upon the temperament and approval of Mayer, his employer. Here, Mank is persuaded to keep his mouth silent while at the party, hosted and attended by people who share opposing political affinities. And one knows, after being in his company during much of the film, that a closed mouth simply will not do.

The same sentiment is shared in the climactic Hearst Castle dinner party sequence as Mank drunkenly pitches a treatment for Kane, letting loose his vague, disapproving opinions of Hearst and the aristocrats who encircle him, including Mayer. Like the early shot in the film of the MGM studios backlot, with an assortment of actors and extras walking about in costume, the party guests are themselves playing dress-up, accoutered in exotic ensembles.

There is playful fakery to artists donning such draperies, but there is nothing playful in the rich doing so—only fake is left. And Mank has something to say about that, in his own way, as guests quietly, intermittently excuse themselves, until it ends splashingly in the loosing of his guts, sending the rest of the remaining guests flying. What's a little more vomit to do in a room already filled with patrons comparable to the regurgitated sludge? After all, these are the same people who, when discussing the rise of Hitler in Germany, neglect him and Nazism mid-conversation, quickly labeling him a political figure not to worry about, where one then asks, when brought up by Mank, "What is a concentration camp?"

As for technique, Fincher does his utmost to imitate the makeup of Old Hollywood films: black-and-white, opening credit crawls, an audio track where voices "echo" in response to outmoded recording processes, gentle fill lights, black cue marks in the upper righthand corner of the frame to signal the end of a reel, and, in particular impersonation of Kane, harsh, columnar lighting, and a flashback structure. Notably, as well, is the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the composition so unlike the usual sonic flare that we come to expect from the industrial-minded pair but so like the jazzy noir tunes that we would first imagine from the era. As a piece of production, it's all rather stunning, as one would expect from Fincher.

As a narrative, Mank is somewhat underwhelming. In the moment, an audience with Mank is simultaneously awarding and mildly unsatisfying, light on emotional nutriment and staying power, with an assured promise that little can be gained on repeat viewings. Superb as a vehicle for performances and exercises in formalism (Oldman is as captivating as ever, with much of the cast—especially Seyfried and Collins—doing the same), but little else in the way of story. Can almost, to a guarantee, imagine that this will be the darling at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony next year since this is practically the poster child for the Oscars, with a story bathed thoroughly in Old Hollywood history and it being about their greatest achievement, Citizen Kane. It may be the one to confer onto Fincher the Oscar for Best Director, but, as always, they deserved it earlier in their careers for better films.

Mank is a fine film, but one that may be easily forgotten, perhaps rooted too much in pastiche and lassitudes rather than in what should have been an irresistible narrative.

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