The Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane movies.
Much like Nolan, David Fincher has never made a bad film. Naysayers may pick apart Alien 3 (honestly not the worst of that franchise) or The Curious Cas of Benjamin Button, but it is doubtful that they would finally classify them as outright “bad”. Which is impressive, given the amount of times he’s covertly hopscotched between genres; he gave us romantic fantasy with Button, revolutionary meta-satire with Fight Club, and a geek tragedy in The Social Network. And now comes Mank. Indisputably his most daring film yet, both stylistically and tonally, Fincher once again proves himself to be an unsung master of whatever he turns his hand to. For Mank is a strong contender for the year’s best, and certainly most passionate, film.
After trying for years to launch the project off the ground, from a screenplay his late father wrote no less, Fincher tells us the tale of how Citizen Kane, once known as the greatest film ever made, and arguably still worthy of said title, came to be born. Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), washed up and with a busted leg, is enlisted by 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write a new picture which Welles intends to direct. As Mank progresses with the ambitious, illustrious script his vision for the picture, and for his life, begin to become clearer.
Films about Citizen Kane generally seem to fall by the wayside when brought alongside their magnificent source material. Kane remains a damned great film, and, for a while, it seemed that no film could capture its spirit of intrigue while trying to inform on its creation.
Enter Mank. Fincher subverts this task by doing what should appear obvious; he presents it as though it were shot among the same time as Kane. Grainy black-and-white, mono audio, a score which may very well have been plucked from that same time period (courtesy of the brilliant Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). This may seem, on paper, fairly gimmicky. But once the titles roll onscreen, it becomes quickly apparent the film is rightly assuming itself as both a love letter and an equal to Kane itself. It’s the same technique a businessman may assume during a meeting; act and talk like an equal, and you may just sell what you’re selling. Mank does.
Boasting the sharply written dialogue of the elder Fincher, Mank never stumbles, fumbles the ball, or ever feels boring. Mank himself exhibits a perfectly deployed wit at every turn, at times poetic, at others sardonic. Most of the time, both. “Just call me Ahab” he drawls over the phone as Welles asks if he’s ready to chase that white whale that is the story. And, from hell’s heart, he certainly stabs at thee, his bed he recovers in his ship, and his pen his harpoon. The presence of Welles is used effectively and sparingly. A Devil on Mank’s shoulder, goatee and all, offering him a suitably devilish deal. Relegating Welles to this status proves a masterful move, establishing him as the closest thing to an unseen antagonist the film has; his voice ever present, but he ever absent. Omnipresent and all knowing, Welles becomes a charismatic enabler and usurper of Mank’s vices and talents. As we flit between the present of Mank writing the script alongside his secretary (Lily Collins) and his past as he charms his way through the studio lot and schmoozing with notable rich-man W. R Hearst (Charles Dance), events gel begin together so seamlessly, it’ll wash over the viewer like a monochrome wave on a celluloid beach.
Fincher Jr, meanwhile, delivers style in spades to match his script. Opting, rightly, not to ape the directorial style of Welles, as any other director might if they were making a Kane movie, Fincher’s commitment to making Mank feel plucked right out of the 1940’s is pretty damned impressive. Previously, Fincher’s work could be easily characterised by a cold visual style to match his (usually) cold stories he told. Here, he and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (his Mindhunter alumni) dares to break from that style, and the result is a warm hug of visual delight. Yes, there is a modern edge to it at times, but the sheer passion shines through in every frame.
As the titular character, Gary Oldman is a centrepiece powerhouse to be reckoned with among an ensemble of brilliance. On the outside, Mank may be just be a writer with a silver tongue who, but Oldman imbues him with a sense of genuine heart at even his lowest moments. Whether waxing poetic with Hearst’s charismatic mistress (played by a charismatic Amanda Seyfried) or spewing his guts up at a dinner party, Mank becomes a tragic figure deserving of redemption; indeed, he rarely took credit for a script he wrote, despite them having his fingerprints all over. So his desire for credit on “the best thing he’s ever written” is a reasonable request. Oldman never once lets Mank slip into cliché or parody, and always lends a life ring of pathos to him as he sinks further and further down to rock bottom.
Amidst the sea of brilliance, Mank does hold some miniscule shortcomings. For as stylish and sharp as it is, the sidelining of certain characters does feel like a mild misuse of the talent portraying them. Charles Dance is an impactful but underused resource as Hearst, the man who would arguably be the basis of Kane’s Kane. While this may be a minor gripe in the context of the story, surely such an important figure might deserve some more scathing commentary from Mank’s perspective throughout the film rather than the odd underdeveloped nod?
However, this is the most minor of gripes, as Mank’s pros vastly outweigh its cons. If Mank were a cocktail, it is a well-balanced Old Fashioned. Sweet in style and story, bitter in the trials of its character, but warm on the way down overall. More than a mere biopic, Mank is the rare Hollywood film about Hollywood that doesn’t feel self-fellating. A love-letter to the brilliant while not overlooking the cruel.