In the film industry, the year 2020 has been characterized by straight-to-video releases, delayed premieres, and cancellations, and yet “Mank,” the new film from director David Fincher, may be one of the year’s finest films.
Fincher first saw acclaim in the ‘90s with the physiological thriller “Se7en” in 1995, followed in close proximity by “The Game” and “Fight Club.” He has enjoyed success with the more recent “Zodiac,” “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl.” Fincher planned to make “Mank” in the late ‘90s, but until now, the project had been shelved, as studios were not in agreement with his insistence to shoot in black and white. Now, after Fincher joined the trend of directors who have been pairing with Netflix to create films, “Mank” has been fully realized, and the result is dazzling.
Working from a script by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, “Mank” tells the biographical story of cynical, alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he rushes to complete the screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” a film that has gone on to be commonly referred to as one of the greatest ever made. The film weaves two layers: the tribulations of Mankiewicz to write the script, and his dealings with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), told through flashbacks.
Much of the film seems to take inspiration from an article by famous film critic Pauline Kael entitled “Raising Kane,” which proffered that Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” actor, director and co-writer, did not actually deserve writing credits for the film. However, film historians have indicated that the evidence within the article is largely untrue, and Welles is rightfully credited (in “Citizen Kane,” he is given second writing credit, after Mankiewicz). This historical inaccuracy does, at points, bleed into “Mank” — fans of Welles will be disappointed with a certain scene toward the end — but ultimately, the film’s achievements shine through.
As is to be expected from Fincher, “Mank” boasts a riveting technical prowess. The attention to detail, and textured, rich sound design present in all his previous efforts is on full display. The crisp and consistently stunning black-and-white photography, the period-authentic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, its elaborate set and costume work, and mono audio all work to give the film the feeling of classic Hollywood filmmaking contemporaneous to the era it sets itself in.
Although some critics have deemed “Mank” a love letter to the movies, and the very act of creating, it is certainly not all glitz and glamor. We are given an in-depth look at the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. Betting, corruption, superficiality and general unhappiness are all rampant. Many of the film’s flashbacks detail Hollywood’s role in an effective smear campaign against author Upton Sinclair and his attempt to run for political office (Sinclair is played in a brief cameo role by Bill Nye the Science Guy).
“Mank” is a wild ride that crackles and shines. Oldman and Seyfried are particularly enthralling to watch onscreen, and the film is a feast for the eyes. Expect “Mank” to rake in lots of nominations come award season. One of its many pleasures is that you can enjoy it within the comfort of your own home, safe from the hazardous risks that come with going to the theater nowadays, as the film started streaming on Netflix December 4.