The Making of a Mankiewicz – Mank (Film Review)

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On April 10th 2003, Jack Fincher passed away, leaving behind a shamble of lost ideas and an un-produced screenplay. In the time before his passing, his son David had just entered the Hollywood sphere, producing notable 90’s classics such as Fight Club and Se7en. The familiar connection between the two can best be described as a dynamic bond of snobbish cinephilia; a speculative and mutual father and son relationship that grew with the appreciation of the cinematic medium. 

Since the passing of his father, David has since produced a variety of different films about the abrupt downfalls of the American Dream. A de-aging Brad Pitt, a prodigious and journalistic Jake Gyllenhaal, an e-boy Jesse Eisenberg, and a homicidal Rosamund Pike are some notable examples of Fincher’s 21st century career. Though something was always omnipresent the shelved posthumous script of his father’s long lost legacy needed to eventually come to fruition. 

Time is like a band-aid. If you give it time, it will eventually heal the wounds of our past. Hence the six year feature hiatus, where after a turbulent Netflix TV show and cancellation, the road to Mank finally began. A love letter to early Hollywood and a passion project ingrained in the heartrending personal memories of an absent father-figure, Fincher’s latest is a detailed time capsule. Mank is a fairytale, a cautionary fable of pompous characters trapped in fragmented flashbacks of nauseating debates and economic turmoil. Moreover, Mank’s greatest strength is when it presents itself as an observational piece — a film that contains uniquely quippy conversations on creative control, as our protagonist attempts to make sense of the evolving consumerist lifestyle of a new Hollywood. 

Herman J. Mankiewicz’s late career can be best described as a freeway of excess and lost opportunity. Dead at 55, the post-Citizen Kane alcoholic lifestyle can be clearly associated with the obscene and shallow relationships of his work-related counterparts. A man submerged into hollow subgroups of rich producers and financiers, the toxicity of Hollywood is what eventually drowned his ego and soul. Mank attempts to make sense of the toxicity and the artificiality of Hollywood, as it swerves and maneuvers its way through impeccably designed production design and set decoration. Accompanied by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ swooning classical score, the digital aesthetic of Mank keeps a reasonable visual distance from its key influences. 

While film stock could have been utilised over a digital-based set up, the romantic and harsh shadows of Mank are frequently reminiscent of films such as Brief Encounter, The Third Man, and the obvious elephant in the room Citizen Kane. Even the near-invisible usage of computer generated imagery enhances the visuals, with a mixture of CGI-developed water effects and cigarette cue marks. The soundscape is even arguably more impressive than the visual element, where the monaural sound mix mimics the exact distortion and audio levels found in films of the 40’s Hollywood era. Minuscule attention to detail add to a bigger picture, where lavish sound-stages and costumes glimmer in the limelight, as Fincher’s clear eye for immaculate detail overpowers the derivative narrative. 

Despite all of the glamorous production value, Mank is arguably just as toxic and artificial when compared with the subject matter that it’s clearly attempting to criticise. Perhaps in due part with Fincher’s hyper-observant eye for emulation, Mank becomes distractingly flashy amid a messy screenplay. It’s a dizzying rabbit hole that blurs the line between homage and social critique, where the film’s distinct halves create a jarring juxtaposition. Mank is divided into two unique halves, where one part of the film is about the creation of the early drafts of Citizen Kane, and the other is essentially a set of multiple post-great depression intertwined flashbacks that specifically observe Mankiewicz’s social and political stance. 

In essence, Mank merges what is basically two distinctly different films with a complete set of different goals and objectives. This usually wouldn’t be an issue when it comes to anthology pieces or even episodic films, but it is Jack Fincher’s insistence on creating a clear link between the different flashbacks that result in the film’s restrictive creative stronghold. In a film that clearly needed a loose missing link, the obsessive determination in cross-cutting different scenes of divergent thematics and character arcs is unnecessary. Even worse, Mank’s greatest flaw is its lack of cohesive flow. Disconnect is one thing, but when the needless merging of scenes can’t even reach a consistent tempo, the film becomes painstakingly dull. It’s like watching an out of tune piano performance in Carnegie hall. A gold-encrusted Steinway may look beautiful from the comfort of a reasonable distance, but when the piano is completely off-key, the pianist will always look like a bumbling fool.

On a thematic level, Mank excels with flying colours. A tall tale of a man slowly losing touch with reality, Fincher’s latest work is a rather invigorating commentary on the proprietorship of the male-ego. Nevertheless, the film is essentially a one-trick pony, where the route of its ideas and concepts lack a discernible punch. In a film with immaculate attention to detail and heavyweight performances from Oldman, Collins, Burke and Seyfried Jack and David Fincher deliver a lackluster ode to a long-lost period of glitz and glamor. For where it succeeds in its clear lack of arbitrary conventionality and Oscar-bait, Mank suffers from a much more complex and villainous plague of structural immaturity.

Dir: David Fincher

Scr: Jack Fincher

Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Burke, Bill Nye

DOP: Erik Messerschmidt

Music: Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Runtime: 131 minutes

Mank is now available to stream on Netflix

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David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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