David Fincher is one of the most highly lauded and infamously meticulous directors of all time. This is the guy who created the cult film Fight Club, directed the acclaimed The Social Network, and earned a prodigious reputation for consistently bringing very dark, complex characters to life on the screen. Six years have passed since the release of his last film, Gone Girl, a period which Fincher himself describes as being defined by an existential creative crisis in the midst of the “roller coaster movie’s” dominance (i.e. Marvel and Star Wars). It is no wonder then, that he should return to making movies focused exclusively on the subjects he wanted to explore. Netflix afforded him this opportunity with complete creative control, and naturally, David Fincher chose to approach a passion project.
Enter MANK. Fincher’s latest film re-tells a famous Hollywood story surrounded in myth: Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz, screenwriter, was tasked by Orson Welles through RKO Productions to write a script that’ll wind audiences back to the theaters in the midst of The Great Depression. Frustrated by a slew of fake news in the midst of an election season (very topical, right??), Mank chooses to go head-to-head with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, addressing both his ability to unjustly sway public opinion, and his relationship with underestimated starlett Marion Davies. The resulting controversy and battle for screenwriter credit for the now legendary Citizen Kane (review here) is the stuff of Hollywood legend, circulated extensively within film schools and hyper-movie-nerd discussions.
Unfortunately, MANK suffers immensely from the barrier of sheer ego and obsession. It is about as much of a passion project as a movie can get. Fincher almost completely forgoes setting up the story, or zips through baseline narrative at light speed. By the time the viewer is engrossed in the movie, they are likely in one of two states of mind: tracking the plot, but bewildered due to Fincher’s story injects where the real history is unknown, or completely lost because they don’t know what the hell is going on. MANK is rife with niche content that is only relevant to those who have not only seen Citizen Kane (which in 2020 is a very small demographic), but also know the Hollywood legend and its corresponding history well. MANK also never focuses on one strict aspect of the story: it jumps between wanting to be about Mank vs Hearst, or Mank vs Welles, or Mank vs Himself and his battle with alcoholism. I am left having to ask myself: who was this movie made for? The only answer is that MANK was made for the director himself, and at most his surrounding cohort that shares the same passion for this niche story.
My complaints don’t end there. There’s a lot of nonsense going on in MANK that I can only relegate to the term “hogwash”. The screenplay, for example, is TOO well written. I did not think such a thing could be possible, but when every other line of dialogue is a witty delivery or clever play on words, it becomes an exhausting mess. The script plays throughout the entirety of the movie as if its trying to prove that its the greatest thing ever written. More egregiously though is that this movie has ugly production design. Fincher tries to replicate the beautiful cinematography and sound of Citizen Kane, and his efforts fall completely flat. While the soft but highly-contrasting lighting, echoing audio, and textured black-and-white of Kane worked well in the time it was made, MANK’s efforts to reproduce it in digital format results in a picture that feels timeless in the worst way possible, and is inconsistent in quality from scene to scene. I feel especially bad considering a RED MONSTROCHROME digital camera was built specifically to make this movie, and because I know Fincher is perfectly capable of mastering black and white, which he’s done before by directing the beautifully-shot Suit and Tie music video for Justin Timberlake.
Oddly enough, the only times this combination of screen and visuals works well are for a few sequences that very likely never occurred, and came strait from Fincher’s imagination. Two of these scenes, the first at a dinner party involving political discussion, and the second featuring a rambling Mank at Hearst Castle in LA, are delightful. The screenplay is not obnoxiously sharp but still carries wit, and the cinematography feels organic to the story in consideration of the film being presented in 2020. Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as Davies, and Charles Dance as Hearst all give commendable performances in their roles (to be expected), and end up being the true heroes of MANK.
Saying 2020 has been a disappointment is practically a waste of breath at this point. The disappointment that applies to, like, all of society, has carried over to Hollywood, not shying away from films that many of us expected to be great. I can’t say if MANK could have been better, because after seeing this attempt at the infamous Citizen Kane tale, I’m not sure David Fincher should have made it to begin with. 5.4/10