After six long years, Oscar-nominated director David Fincher has finally made his return to directing feature films, and that alone is riveting. Unfortunately, “Mank” will likely go down as the phenomenal director’s most forgettable film. It is by no means a bad movie, but it commits an arguably worse sin of being a boring one. “Mank,” a film about filmmaking in the Golden Age of Hollywood, never quite manages to elevate itself above the trappings of the repetitive trope.
The film aims to tell us the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s (Gary Oldman) journey to write the greatest film of all time, “Citizen Kane” (1941). The release of this film and its subject matter has sparked one of Hollywood’s longest held controversies, who wrote “Citizen Kane”? This film challenges Orson Welles, one of the legendary gods of American cinema, by positing that he wrote none of it. However, this is not as interesting as it sounds, nor is it the focus of the story. In reality, “Mank” is just as much about the authorship of “Citizen Kane” as Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007) is about the identity of the Zodiac Killer and his “The Social Network” (2011) is about who really made Facebook — that is to say, it isn’t really about that.
As the other two Fincher films mentioned did, “Mank” chooses to focus on its main character Mankiewicz, instead of the question of authorship. A shortcoming is that this depiction of Mankiewicz is nowhere near as interesting as Robert Graysmith or Mark Zuckerberg, in “Zodiac” and “The Social Network” respectively, and the supporting characters do very little to aid this problem. It is also important to note that if you have not seen “Citizen Kane” and lack a cursory knowledge of its legacy, there will be nothing in this film for you. As someone who loves “Citizen Kane” and already had some knowledge of its legacy, it was easy to note while watching the film that if I hadn’t already ticked off those two qualifiers I would have been hopelessly lost and bored.
“Mank” follows two timelines: one in which Mankiewicz is struggling to write “Citizen Kane” as he reminisces about the life experiences that have led him there, and one depicting those very life experiences. The beginning of the film feels like being stuck listening to an older person crone on about their life when you only meant to be there for five minutes. Mankiewicz is depicted as the stereotypical weathered genius who’s too stubborn to let go of his beliefs, but also too jaded to do anything about it but drown himself in alcohol and gamble his savings away much to the chagrin of his wife “poor Sara” (Tuppence Middleton). There’s very little about the character that hasn’t been explored in other movies. The only moments of warmth in the film come from Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies, who Mankiewicz takes a liking to as she is the only other person in Hollywood who doesn’t seem to fully accept being a cog in the industry.
Around the second half, the film finally starts to gain some momentum thanks to a political subplot surrounding the film industry’s involvement with the election of the Republican Frank Merriam against socialist Upton Sinclair. Once this election subplot finishes, the film continues to chug along much better as Mankiewicz finishes his first draft of the screenplay around then and we begin to see the consequences of his work. For those who don’t know, “Citizen Kane” was a massive scandal even before its creation and release because it was loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, one of the richest and most powerful men of his time, who tried everything he could to prevent the release of the film. As we begin to see characters tell Mankiewicz that he cannot make the movie, but that the script is his finest work, I asked myself why the film chose to spend so much time on Mankiewicz’s writing the script. The movie felt aimless until these actions finally started happening.
One of the most egregious sins of this film is giving off the stench of Oscar bait, which I say with all possible respect to the Fincher family because one of the things that most interested me about this film prior to watching it was that it was written by the late Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father. Jack Fincher supplies some decent dialogue sprinkled throughout that feels very reminiscent of classic Hollywood films, such as when Mankiewicz sarcastically suggests MGM should release propaganda films to turn the tide of the election by saying “you can make the world swear that King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40.” Later in the film, MGM actually does hire someone to make propaganda newsreels and when the guilt-stricken director of these newsreels asks if Mankiewicz believes they will have an effect on voters he responds, “Only the ones who believe King Kong is 10 stories tall or Mary Pickford a virgin at 40.”
While Seyfried, Oldman and more all deliver very competent performances, they are in roles that feel more like they are aimed towards receiving awards, rather than actually being interesting. Their performances are only competent, yet not outstanding to the point it makes the film significantly better. As a fan of David Fincher’s previous works, it has to be said that it would be very obnoxious if this was the movie that would win him his first Oscar because this has to be the least revolutionary of his works.
After waiting six years for the return of one of modern cinema’s greatest directors, “Mank” is not a bad film, but a disappointment. It’s also important to ask why this film needed to exist. There is nothing this narrative provides outside of an education on the story behind the making of “Citizen Kane,” which could be found through more accurate books and documentaries. With very little going for it in the beginning of the film and only a bare minimum amount of narrative drive by the end of it, “Mank” is acceptable but not memorable. For the director of acclaimed films like “Seven” (1995) and “The Social Network,” it’s notable that his latest release is something that we won’t be revisiting or talking about at the end of the decade or even at the end of the next year. As a reviewer evaluating the work of artists much like teachers evaluate the work of their students, one of the smartest kids in class seems to have phoned it in and that’s just disappointing.