Mank Review

Even if you have never heard of Herman Mankiewicz, and I suspect most of the general movie audience hasn't, you almost certainly are familiar with his work. The famed writer's cynical wit and unmatched sense of humor were at the center of some of Hollywood's biggest hits of the 1930s. But he is best known for his work on the critical darling, Citizen Kane.

Despite co-writing the script for what is considered by many the greatest film ever made, audiences tend to overlook his contributions in favor of Orson Welles, the young upstart who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the movie. Working from a script penned by his late father Jack, director David Fincher looks to rectify this by highlighting Mankiewicz's work on the film in his latest drama, Mank.

The story follows the titular Mank (Gary Oldman) as the once esteemed writer retreats to a California oasis to finish his first draft of Citizen Kane. A broken man, Mankiewicz struggles to meet Welles's assigned deadline as he reflects on his life with his secretary, detailing his fall from MGM golden-boy to Hollywood pariah. The script, a scathing rebuke of media tycoon William Randolph Heart (Charles Dance), garners the attention of Hollywood execs who fear retribution from the newspaper mogul. As Mank desperately attempts to finish the first draft for the film, he faces mounting pressure from cinema elites to scrap the script altogether.

In many ways, Mank is in conversation with its predecessor. It's an audacious film transporting audiences to a specific place and time in Hollywood history. Presented in black and white, Mank feels like a production ripped from the era of Citizen Kane. The film is dreamlike, a picturesque portrait of the movie industry during Mankiewicz's time. While Fincher's detailed direction deserves credit here, the work of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and sound mixer Ren Klyce particularly stands out as the film creates the aesthetic and feel of a movie from the 40s.

It's Fincher's script, though, where the connective tissue between the two is most apparent. Much like Citizen Kane, Mank utilizes a series of flashbacks throughout the narrative as both films detail the rise and fall of complicated protagonists haunted by their past. It's clear Fincher set out to mirror Citizen Kane, with several beats operating as an homage to scenes from the original film.

Despite the similarities with its predecessor, something felt amiss about Mank. That is not to say it is a bad film, per se, as it is visually impressive and features strong performances across the board - particularly from Amand Seyfried, who oozes charm as Hearst's actress girlfriend, Marion Davies. But Mank misses the mark, failing to deliver on a promising premise.

Part of the problem is Netflix's inability to market the film properly. Promotional materials present Mank as a behind the scenes look at the making of Citizen Kane. In reality, Mank is about a man's fall from grace as he becomes disillusioned with Hollywood interjecting itself into the political system for personal gain. Fincher's film is far more concerned with detailing the titular writer's motivation for writing the script in the first place, providing almost no context about Citizen Kane's production outside of the complicated relationship between Mankiewicz and Welles.

Ultimately, the script is where the film falters the most. The unfocused plot tended to meander on seemingly unconnected beats for far too long. While the third act does tie these plot threads up in a satisfying way, I wasn't sure what story Fincher was trying to tell for much of the movie. Similarly, the narrative's constant maneuvering between the present-day and the past with little indication of any real transition was difficult to follow. It was quite honestly a confusing slog to get through at times, even if I did find myself enjoying the stellar performances on the screen.

While director David Fincher made several choices that lift Mank, I wish his editing led to a more concise film. In a lot of ways, it felt like Fincher was holding back in his direction here. His filmography is full of movies manipulating time as part of their narratives, and he is renowned for his ability to craft dark, character-driven dramas examining an individual's psyche. Both of these elements are key to Mank's story, yet nothing felt special about it. Perhaps a second viewing would help me better appreciate Fincher's vision for the film. Mank is a good film, after all. It just happens to be one whose pacing and transitioning prevented me from really digging into the plot.

These issues left me with a burning question, to which I don't know if I have an answer. Who is Mank's target audience? Most of the stylistic and editing choices made in the movie were to mimic that of Citizen Kane. Without a general understanding of the source material and the writer behind it, I don't know if these choices resonate with an average viewer. It truly feels like a film that only cinephiles will appreciate for its reverence of a bygone era in Hollywood and a writer whose contributions frequently get overlooked. Then again, it isn't Fincher's responsibility to educate the audience. He is only interested in telling the best possible story. And Mank's story deserves to be shared, even if the script does take a few liberties with it.

At one point during the movie, Mank turns to a colleague and says, "You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one." Fincher and company certainly succeed at leaving quite the impression with Mank, even if it does falter along the way. In the end, Mank is a good film with a few small issues that keep it from becoming great.

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