Mainely Movies’s review published on Letterboxd:
▶️ Click HERE for my full video review.
"You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience.”
I’ve been looking forward to Mank basically since it was announced and even though it was quite the process to get the screener for this one, I did finally get a chance to see it a bit early. Now, I’m a really big fan of David Fincher’s films and I love movies about making movies, so Mank seemed pretty tailor-made for me. And I enjoyed it, however it is tailor-made. This is not a one-size fits all kind of movie. It’s easily Fincher’s most niche film and I don’t see this having broad, mainstream appeal with general audiences. This is a movie meant for film lovers. And I don’t just mean people who like to watch movies; I mean people who are interested and invested in film as a whole. In the history of the studio-era of Hollywood and the films that came out during that time period. In the process of screen writing and filmmaking and everything that goes into creating a movie.
And the movie that is at the center of Mank is, of course, Citizen Kane. But despite being a movie about making a movie, Mank is pretty different from its conspecifics. While we do see some behind-the-scenes filmmaking moments, it’s not a movie about the filming of Citizen Kane, so if you’re looking for a movie like 8½ or Day for Night, this isn’t that type of film. Instead, it’s much more focused on the screenwriting process and the pre-production that went into Citizen Kane. But, even that is really just used as a framing device to set up for this semi-biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz. It’s certainly a fictionalized account of events, but it was incredibly clever in design. Not only is it about the making of Citizen Kane, but it’s also about the background and inspirations for that film. That would be cool in and of itself, but Mank goes a step further, drawing continuous parallels between both Citizen Kane and the making of Citizen Kane, but also between Citizen Kane and this very film, Mank.
And that is easily my favorite thing about this movie. I love how this functions as a companion film to Citizen Kane. I mean, you could watch this and probably understand the story without having seen Citizen Kane, but you lose so much of this movie’s whole without it. So, do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve seen Citizen Kane (preferably recently) before watching this one. The story connections between the two are fairly obvious, but it’s definitely cool seeing the fictionalized real-life counterparts of the main characters and events of Citizen Kane. But the coolest part for me was the stylistic connection. Mank perfectly emulates Citizen Kane without feeling like a forced, fan service copycat of it. Instead, it’s entirely an homage to Citizen Kane and, more broadly, that era of Hollywood.
Everything from the technical aspects to the film structure to the dialogue feel like Citizen Kane. And those stylistic parallels are just so satisfying to me. Citizen Kane is a movie that’s told in a very nonlinear fashion. It jumps around in time a lot and can be a bit confusing to follow if you’re not really paying attention. That aspect, and perhaps criticism, of Citizen Kane is brought up as part of the story of Mank, but it’s also replicated in its structure. Rather than jumping around through moments of Charles Foster Kane’s life, we jump through moments of Mankiewicz’s life. There are a lot of flashbacks, but much like in Citizen Kane, we have a then present day scenario we keep coming back to. Rather than a reporter investigating Kane’s last words, here we see Mank writing Citizen Kane. But in both films, those flashbacks serve to provide the necessary background information we need to fully understand the film’s present-day storyline.
And it’s not just the story and structure of Citizen Kane that Mank draws upon. There are certain scenes and shots that are practically ripped right from Citizen Kane. For instance, one moment involving Mankiewicz visually parallels perhaps the most iconic shot of the opening Rosebud sequence of Citizen Kane. Homages and references like that are very cool to see in movies, but they are elevated to the extreme in Mank because of the technical aspects. You could very easily mistake this film for one that was actually made in the early 1940s. It’s just so meticulously and impeccably crafted to emulate that time period. And we’re not just talking the costumes and dialogue and set design here. I mean everything about the film itself.
The cinematography here is outstanding and is sure to nab this film some nominations, at the very least. There’s something inherently cinematic about black and white photography thanks to contrast and lighting, but the impressiveness of the cinematography goes far beyond that for me. As with the story and structure, the coolest part of this movie for me is how well it emulates Citizen Kane and other films of the time period. Anybody can shoot a nicely lit film in black and white, but not many people can replicate the exact feel of a 1940s film. The framing and rack focuses, the style of camera movements and soft edges – it’s all spot on. But, so much attention to detail was put into this that even the byproduct process elements were replicated; things that you would never see in a movie today. Like the reel changeover cues in the upper righthand corner or that momentary stutter flash that happens right before a fade out or dissolve transition in old movies because of the physical process of overlaying the film. That process is very different today, so that’s an extremely minute detail that had to be created and added as an effect to nearly every scene transition. It’s the kind of thing that will probably go unnoticed by most viewers, but it adds that extra tiny bit of authenticity to the film, which is just so cool to me.
The technical elements aren’t the only things that are spot-on for the time period of the film. The performances are equally as convincing. We’ve got some big name actors in this movie, but they really dissolve into these roles, so again, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a movie that came out in 2020. Nothing about these performances feel modern. Even though the characters in this film are real people, everything about them has that heightened, larger than life feel that you get from performances in movies of the time period. You get that snappy dialogue, the slight air of grandeur, the almost over-acting intensity of an actor who has recently made the jump from stage to screen. It’s all there, again, contributing to the authentic period-accurate feel.
This authenticity and emulation of Citizen Kane does have its downside though. Much like Citizen Kane, the actual story and plot of Mank is kind of dull. It plods along with fairly uneven pacing and lots of dialogue-heavy scenes that, frankly, can be pretty boring at times. It was able to hold my attention because of the parallels and connections to Citizen Kane and my interest in the filmmaking process, but it’s definitely the weakest aspect of the film and probably won’t be all that captivating to the average moviegoer. If you’ve seen my review of Citizen Kane, you know it took me quite a few rewatches to get to a point where I actually found the story interesting, so if all the parallels between these two films hold true, at least there’s still hope for Mank’s story on rewatch.
In spite of all the hype and anticipation, Mank is going to join the ranks of Alien 3 as an outlier in David Fincher’s filmography. While Alien 3 was a case of studio interference, Mank is a case of studio emulation. It’s almost a self-imposed interference of sorts. It’s a really impressive simulation of a 1940s film, but it still has the same effect: it doesn’t feel like a David Fincher movie. That’s not a major detriment for me, but he has a very recognizable filmmaking style, so I think some fans of his will be disappointed when they don’t see that here. It’s not your typical Fincher movie because he wasn’t making it for his typical audience. I’m sure a lot of people will call this a love letter to Hollywood, but it’s really more of a personal passion project. The script was written by David Fincher’s father who never saw the film come to fruition before his death, so there was an element of family legacy to the production of Mank in addition to the more obvious Hollywood legacy.