Mank (2020): Filmnetic Review

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I enjoy tales of old Hollywood and its even older curmudgeons as much as any other film fanatic. And, as far as “enjoying things” goes, I would say I enjoy David Fincher’s movies a lot. With snappy dialogue and the visuals to match, I, like many others, impatiently anticipated his return to the silver screen (it’s been six years since we’ve seen a Fincher film, with 2014’s Gone Girl being the most recent work by the director, excluding Mindhunter). And, despite the hellhole that was the rest of this year, 2020 gifted us one thing. Voilà. Enter: Mank (2020).

Let me begin by saying that Mank is definitely a film buff’s film. Penned by the late Jack Fincher (David’s father) in the early 2000s, it tells the story of the writing of what is argued to be one of the best movies of all time: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But that’s precisely the catch–can the success of the film be solely contributed to Orson?

In true Kael fashion, Jack Fincher upholds the importance of Herman J. Mankiewicz–Mank, the man who actually wrote much of the screenplay–to the history of Kane. While it’s indisputable that Welles’s touch made the film what it is, he never would’ve had a story to tell in the first place if not for Mank, and as a result, much of the film focuses on the screenwriter’s life before and during the writing of the movie.

Unfortunately, as excited as I was for this film, I did take issue with some of its choices, or, rather, the seeming lack thereof at some points. For example, it’s exceedingly obvious that “Mank” is meant to look and feel like Citizen Kane visually and sonically, what with its numerous flashback sequences, black and white cinematography, and mono sound mix. But, with one of the original’s main claims to fame being its revolutionary use of deep focus (which was lauded as one of the greatest achievements in cinema at that point; everyone say, “Thank you, Gregg Toland”), why is its inclusion in Mank so uninspired?

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank on Netflix

In many scenes, despite being able to see all the way to the back of the shots, next to nothing is done with that space, and it was the very first thing I noticed. Unlike in Kane, where the deep space (along with long takes) was used to articulate relationships between characters or establish their motivations, Mank simply cuts to a different shot before the space or time can be used to do so. Fincher has all this deep focus, but what is he doing with it? Next to nothing.

Isn’t that what the medium is all about? Being able to manipulate space and time to benefit your story? There should be a reason a film is a film and not a novel, or a poem, or an essay. It’s a story told in pictures, and the pictures should make sense with the story you’re telling. If you’re going to make a visual tribute to Citizen Kane, shouldn’t it actually…look like Citizen Kane?

It feels…apathetic. Blasé. Disinterested. It feels halfway done.

But, this actually brings up another point I wanted to make. Contradictorily, at other times in Mank, exact references to Citizen Kane are made. However, they don’t really seem to do much to make sense of the automatic parallels drawn between Charles Foster Kane and Mank as a result of the film’s (lazy) visual homage to the classic (If Mank is the main character of Mank, and Kane is the main character of Kane, but Kane is meant to represent William Randolph Hearst, then who’s flying the plane?!).

One example is the remake of the famous snow globe shot where Mank drops the Mickey bottle onto the floor. Like I said before, it’s obvious that the stylistic choice of filming Mank like Citizen Kane subconsciously equates Charles Foster Kane to Mank as the main characters of each movie, but for what?

I suppose it could be argued that each of them is searching for something they’ve lost and in the process trying but failing to fill the void, but if that’s the point, then it should be clearer in the rest of the story that this is what the filmmakers are doing. Arc-wise, Mank spends the whole movie on a trajectory to separate himself from Hearst, the true inspiration for Kane, not to unite himself with him. It’s just muddy and vague.

In my opinion, it seems like the snow globe remake shot was haphazardly thrown in so that film bros could get their obligatory “I recognize that shot!” in (cue the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme) and less because it actually makes sense within the plot of Mank.

I don’t mean to dog on the film too hard. There are things I like about it. For example, the acting shines; the performances of Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard, and Lily Collins particularly stuck out to me, but everyone was fantastic, really (Who doesn’t love Gary Oldman?). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is also noteworthy, drumming up visions of the era in a purposeful way and not a pandering one, like the remade snow globe shot–the story of Mank is a 1930s Hollywood one after all, so the music should follow suit accordingly. And, as a writer, I was happy to see a writer’s story being told (I thought the typewriter scene headings were a nice touch).

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank on Netflix

I also respect that despite the fact that the film is about Mank and obviously takes his side in the old “Raising Kane” debate, there’s something very Fincherian about his character in that he’s not always presented as likeable, but we as the audience root for him anyway. Mank’s tenacity and assuredness in his own way of being is admirable, even if it is not necessarily agreeable (a là Rosamund Pike’s character, Amy Dunne, in “Gone Girl”). I understand why Fincher wanted to tell his story. It makes sense to me within the bigger picture of his filmmaking.

Overall, though Mank is definitely reminiscent of the film of the late 30s and early 40s, it lacks a real followthrough and, as a result, the usual Fincherian hallmarks. This attempted mimicry is just that: a seemingly half-hearted imitation rather than a tribute, an ode to wasted potential. It simply doesn’t feel like a David Fincher movie to me because the Wellesian stylistic choices overshadow Fincher’s own unique directorial stamp.

Ultimately, despite my complaints, Mank isn’t all bad. There are good elements. Unfortunately, it just seems to fall flat at the exact moments it really needs to perform. But hey, who knows, maybe it’ll pull a “***** ****” (1999) and become a cult classic in its own right in a few years.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the next Fincher film. And for now, you can stream Mank on Netflix.

Filmnetic Grade: C+

What did you think of Mank (2020)? The disinterested faces of the grips after Mayer told them they were getting a pay cut killed me. Also, did you laugh as hard as I did at the fact that Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman are supposed to be playing characters that are the same age? Tell us in the comments below!

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