‘This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory’
A proposal – how much you enjoy a film and how much you appreciate it can provide distinctly different answers. David Fincher return to the big screen, 6 years after Gone Girl, is the epitome of this. It’s already something of a hard sell, a film following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s tumultuous development of Orson Welles‘ iconic 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Although having watched Citizen Kane isn’t a requirement or prerequisite, prior knowledge does help certain narrative beats and jokes land. (If 119 minutes of classic cinema doesn’t appeal, The Simpsons parody ‘Rosebud’ from the show’s fifth season is one of the finest episodes it’s ever made.)
We open on Mank’s present day in 1940, with an injured and rather-down-on-his-luck Mank (Gary Oldman) pitching up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He’s there to write a script for new Hollywood Wonder Kid Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and he’s only got 60 days to do it, with two assistants (Lily Collins and Monika Gossmann) to aid him and decades worth of issues to get in his way. The main narrative tension is the rather age-old trope of struggling writer battling his demons – the fact we know he manages it as Citizen Kane is an actual film that exists (and is regularly voted the Greatest Film Of All Time in industry polls) does slightly undercut proceedings. Instead the drama comes from his past, the things and battles he has faced in his past that have lead him to his now – bedridden and determined to write a scathing take down of media baron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Even if it means hurting close friend, and Heart’s lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in the process – not to mention destroying his own reputation and any hope of a career.
It’s clear from the outset that this is a passion project for Fincher, with the screenplay itself having been written by his father (who passed away in 2003). Every frame feels personal, as if there’s a direct link between what is being told and the story behind it. Visually how that story is told is spectacular, the cinematography has such wondrous depth and full of cigarette-tinted sumptuous. The soundtrack, by long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is moody and atmospheric – superbly enhancing the paranoia and uncertainty that plagued 1930 and 40s Hollywood, with concerns over Hitler’s rise in Germany and the homegrown fears surrounding socialism, which would go onto leading to an actual Hollywood blacklist in the late 40s. The cast mirror this tone perfectly – with Oldman disappearing into the role as the likeable but hugely flawed writer, Seyfried delivering a femme fatale-esque dame with a steely edge and a career-finest Dance as the elusive tycoon. Burke also deserves a mention for being able to capture a young and righteously indignant Welles so perfectly with not-that-much screen time.
While there are some really great scenes here, they feel too-much like a patchwork pastiche to the work that inspired. Just as with Citizen Kane, the flashbacks are used to flesh out our main character – in a search to both expose faults but also create empathy – some are more interesting or purposeful seeming that others. But the problem is it’s nigh-on impossible to form an attachment to any of these characters. Following them around is entertaining enough, but there’s something of a block between us and them that leaves the viewer feeling cold. There’s also an unevenness about the film’s tone, shifting between drama and comedy of sorts with little prep or transition time. It’s as if it’s not quite sure what it wants to be, beyond a love letter to Golden Hollywood. (Which in turn just made me want to dig out Hail Caesar (2016))
Mank is going to be the kind of film that has a limited audience, but that audience will be ardent and love it dearly. That audience will be enamoured with it’s swoony yet intellectual take on cinematic myth. The rest may just struggle with a film that isn’t quite sure what it is, other than a dense and slow-burn meditative biopic.
Mank is out in selected UK cinemas now and on Netflix worldwide from Friday 4th December.