Film Reviews

Film Review: Mank

Alex Watkin

David Fincher’s latest film Mank is a biopic about the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) commonly referred to as ‘Mank’. The film dramatizes the controversial  authorship, surrounding the writing of Citizen Kane (1941), between Mankiewicz and Orson Welles (Tom Burke). Fincher’s film retains the technical perfection synonymous with his work, capturing the decadence of the Hollywood Golden Age with a hypnotic quality that kept me engaged but its story meanders and never quite justifies itself.

Fincher’s last three films (Gone Girl, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network) can almost be described as a trilogy in their approach to style, but with Mank released 6 years after Gone Girl it feels, at first glance, like a big departure. Some critics and audiences have postured that the appeal of Mank is as an artefact of the Hollywood Golden age, but I never felt this illusion. The pace of cutting, clarity of the digital image and precision of the camera movements made its presentation almost completely in line with Fincher’s contemporary work. The black and white, minor postproduction image alterations and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, different to previous Fincher collaborations, are all that differentiates it.

Mank never compares to something like Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse or Mark Jenkin’s Bait (both from 2019) in creating a film that genuinely feels like it could have been released decades ago, but nor should it have to. Mank’s visuals are engaging because Fincher’s fingerprints are all over them.  It creates a credible 1930s Hollywood, it’s just shot with modern cameras.

This dichotomy occurred to me when first hearing Mank was a period piece shot in B&W due to Fincher’s longstanding affiliation with digital cameras; while he doesn’t betray these ideas and the presentation is the best part of film, it perhaps leaves the film a little visually confused, especially when compared to the cohesion of medium and subject present in The Social Network.

The pace of cutting, clarity of the digital image and precision of the camera movements made its presentation almost completely in line with Fincher’s contemporary work

The B&W emanates affection for the Hollywood Golden Age, or at least the films it manifested, whilst the content of the film feels very much like a careful criticism of the labyrinth of competing interests of the studio system. The film’s ability to grapple with controversial subjects without ever pandering is its most admirable quality, particularly considering its protagonist’s political affiliation isn’t factually substantiated.

Mank cuts between Mankiewicz attempting to write the first draft of Citizen Kane whilst confined to bed after a car accident and a series of flashbacks of Mankiewicz navigating the Hollywood landscape. With this structure, Fincher certainly isn’t shying away from comparisons to Citizen Kane, so it doesn’t seem needless to state that Mank executes it nowhere near as well; it isn’t completely redundant but it lacks the impetus of a ‘Rosebud’ to justify itself.

There is a resounding sense of rambling triviality, mainly due to the film never quite providing any reason to invest in Mankiewicz; the character’s admirable trait is his writing proficiency, a trait not particularly conducive to a visual medium. Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020), although not fully successful, made greater strides to depict a writer’s thought process through more unconventional uses of the cinematic medium. To gain any appreciation of Mankiewicz as a writer it is required viewing to have seen Citizen Kane, which certainly doesn’t help Fincher with comparisons.

Usually I wouldn’t care about a film’s historical inaccuracy, yet with Mank’s lack of emotionally captivating characters through large suedes of its 133 minutes all I’m left with is the history, so the fact that Mank dramatizes Pauline Kael’s debunked theory of Citizen Kane’s authorship really cheapens the whole experience.

The content of the film feels very much like a careful criticism of the labyrinth of competing interests of the studio system

In fact, the main issue with Mank is that it feels like it requires so much homework to get anything out of particular scenes, and once you do that homework it only makes the film’s choices bewildering. This periphery would be ignorable if Mankiewicz himself kept you engaged; the film certainly is more riveting towards the end as Mankiewicz’s story climaxes, but for large portions of the runtime the surface is all that kept me interested.

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of @hhesher-sun via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @mank via instagram.com. No changes made to these images.

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