This holiday season, critically acclaimed director David Fincher of Gone Girl and The Social Network fame comes out with Mank both on Netflix and in cinemas, further cementing the new dual-release system which is increasingly becoming the norm during this unprecedented era for the film industry.
Mank is a biopic centered on Hank Mankiewicz, the brilliant yet especially flawed writer behind the story of 1941 cinematic behemoth Citizen Kane. We follow Mank (Gary Oldman) on his boozy, photo finish attempts to complete the iconic script as requested by 24-year-old hotshot Orson Welles (Tom Burke). An onslaught of flashbacks pepper his offbeat process, giving us a closer (if not at first, incredibly unclear) look at the cinematic parallels between Kane and Mank’s real-life relationships with William Hearst (Charles Dance)—essentially the Bezos/Musk-figure of the ‘30s—and Hearst’s sugar baby turned starlet Marion Davies (acted to perfection by Amanda Seyfried).
Although the film is meant to shine a light on Mank as an individual and artist, the screenplay written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, makes the film more an ode to Old Hollywood in general: a bygone era of the transition from silent films to Talkies, big movie studios fighting over doe-eyed actresses, and crewmembers reckoning with the onset of World War II just as they are recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. It’s very much David Fincher’s own version of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, but more dialogue-filled and esoteric. The harried script includes a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald-type conversations that feel like homework to follow, and the frenetic flipflopping from Mank’s past to present seems unnecessarily exhausting as a narrative tool. It’s neither the most effective nor entertaining method of storytelling, especially for younger viewers who may not be familiar with all the drama behind Citizen Kane.
Taxing plot aside, every other aspect of filmmaking, from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s lovely period score, to the lavish sets (an extravagantly recreated Hearst castle!) and 1930s wardrobe are impeccable. Fincher also tries to evoke the feel of movies from that era as much as possible, employing cigarette burns, flashback slug lines, and black-and-white visuals throughout the entire film. These stylish decisions do feel a bit gimmicky sometimes but create a definitive display of Fincher’s technical mastery. Mank is an absolute shoo-in for all the ‘lower belt’ Oscar categories, and might finally get a very devoted Amanda Seyfried her first Oscar nod.
This old-world tale makes for a very old-world film, despite Fincher’s brief effort to, at one point, connect 1930s political propaganda to the tired fake news debacle of today. The world-building is polished and immersive yet tackles so many hot topics simultaneously that you ultimately forget that Mank is supposed to be about Mank. Only in the third act do we finally see the connection between Mank’s screenplay and his life, but detached viewers may have already lost interest before it all finally comes together. Fortunately, there is the option to stream instead of fully committing to the two and a half hours sat in the cinema.
Mank is streaming on Netflix.