I guess there’s only one way to really start off my review for Mank. I’m likely to lose any remaining credibility I may have by stating this, but I have never seen Citizen Kane. Like most however, I’m fully aware of its cinematic importance, and the footprint it has left on filmmaking ever since its release in the early 40’s.
Why is this relevant? Well, if you are unaware of David Fincher’s latest project, which hit Netflix at the end of last week, it tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he races to finish his best piece of work, Citizen Kane.
Gary Oldman stars as Mank. A distinguished writer for Hollywood blockbusters. Over the years though, he’s lost his way, and during the process of writing what is often considered the greatest achievement in filmmaking history, spends most of his hours bed ridden or intoxicated. Or, more often than not, both at the same time.
But that’s where this film will likely surprise you. I mean, of course it’s about the creation which later become Orson Welles’ masterpiece, but it narratively dances between the past and present. Where the ‘present’ focuses on the final stages of Citizen Kane’s pages, the past probes the life of Mank, leading up to the historical event. Even highlighting key components which led the writer to such narrative decisions.
In most circumstances, the thought of diving into the true story of one of cinema’s grandest achievements, may seem appealing. But when we discover who Herman J. Mankiewicz actually is, that appeal slowly turns to disappointment. What you’re ultimately left with is a drunk, blabbering bastard who’s better days are long behind him.
Where this film loses much of its momentum is with its constant jumps in time, and actual lack of focus on the main story in hand. I’m not saying watching Gary Oldman spend the entirety of its runtime, laying in bed, practically drinking himself to sleep is cinematic perfection, but neither is much of its politically charged sub-plotting. Which there’s so much of, many of the segments dabble in the more uninteresting obscurities.
What Mank fails to deliver in terms of, well ironically, its screenwriting, it marvels in its technical and physically alluring visuals. This is something that Fincher has always done remarkably, and Mank is no exception to that.
The noir filter was the right decision, and adds to the raw impact of early days Hollywood. The sets, the landscaping and the costumes all work in favour of its black and white tone. Matching that of its source material, and paying homage to the ‘Golden Age’ of American cinema.
Its stylistic photography and strong central performance can only take the film so far. As falling behind is its often messy script, and strong support casting negligence.
Lily collins stars as Rita Alexander. Mank’s supposed secretary and under-appreciated muse. Lily appears in the present stages of Mank’s now troubled life, and is shockingly given rather little to do. Aside from the occasional quip and slight backstory dig, Lily’s moments are always overstated by Oldman’s brash deliverance of Mank. The same can ultimately be said for Amanda Seyfried, who’s portrayal as actress Marion Davies, does little to turn heads.
Sam Troughton gets some engaging moments as Welles’ appointed collaborator, John Houseman, and Welles himself, played by Tom Burke, shows up for perhaps the most important scene of the entire exchange. Charles Dance and Arliss Howard also provide much of the weight that is left on the shoulders of its support cast.
The fundamental issue with Fincher’s handling of this material, is that it’s far less interesting as it may once sound. Certainly more so than the movie in which this is essentially the birthplace of. Unlikely to hit that ‘classic’ Fincher pedestal that Se7en (1995) and The Social Network (2010) currently sit on, and more than likely to be shrugged off for years to come, with the likes of Panic Room (2002) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).