Any number of undergrad papers will tell us David Fincher’s corpus concerns obsession. More pertinent to his endurance as the rare A-list American auteur is its study of accumulation, a nearly interactive 1:1 between formal expression and audience experience. His is a filmography charting years of fixation and dead ends (Zodiac, Benjamin Button), the formation of terrifying ideologies (Seven, Fight Club), documents and photographs as fuel for investigations (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac again), and competing narratives (The Social Network, Gone Girl). Forget that a screenplay has never been credited to Fincher—it can’t help seeming he’s primary author when we observe these things from a mile back. Who else’s widescreen frames demarcate tension with such hard lines? What working filmmaker so knows how to tighten the coil by cutting just as someone turns their head in recognition of new information? These characteristic rhythms and inclinations key into how and why Mank is, markedly, the least-enjoyable film he’s ever directed, defined by its distended lack of accumulation, friction, traction, or revelation. The exposition-mountain screenplay leaves little to feel just as a devotion to the written word leaves scant room for anything to look at. I’m slightly unsure what anybody involved was hoping to get from the experience, much less what’s the takeaway sans basic admiration for baseline craft.
If Mank concerns Herman J. Mankiewicz (embodied by a marble-mouthed Gary Oldman), a gun-for-hire screenwriter whose quiet Midas touch bloomed into cinematic immortality as co-writer of Citizen Kane, do we blame adherence to biopic structures and inclinations for its inertness? One take, surely. But I suspect the issue’s more systemic. Mank’s sole writing credit falls to Fincher’s father, Jack. To hear (David) Fincher tell it, the work (Jack) Fincher—deceased in 2003, author of a script meant to go in front of cameras after 1997’s The Game—conducted as a journalist offered key influence for this would-be second career.
Rather than chronicle Citizen Kane’s creation point-by-point, Mank works a granular study of labor disputes in the ‘30s studio system: back-room haggling, local elections, the consequences of loyalties. Fascinating stuff. That said––and with respect to the dead––this is also a verbose movie scripted by someone whose ear seemed far more attuned to relaying detail than, let’s say, anything else. Whatever (uncredited) work producer Eric Roth, himself a valuable Hollywood mainstay, put into subsequent drafts falls silent on these ears; one wonders if there’s no wiggle room in terrain this specific, ostensibly built from such depth of research. However satisfying you find its Citizen Kane strand depends almost entirely on your interest in Mankiewicz’s booze-soaked stay in the not-quite-Tinseltown city of Victorville, California—cinephile haven in later years through the Victorville Film Archive—a dead-end stop in Mankiewicz’s current destitution. Mank’s deficiencies are of both the pleasure and narrative principle, and most damning is how Fincher’s script hinges on the worst diametric drama: this much backroom talk, squabbling, and monologuing either means little to Mank’s current state (of course it doesn’t) or quantifies in toto his personal rot and creative fluidity (of course it does). This realization sets early, fast, nowhere to go but staring straight ahead.
Certain salvation rests in constituent elements, notwithstanding their being “strong” the way expensive, awards-season releases are meant to be strong. Costumes appear well-worn, both a plurality of fashions between sequences and among characters within the same scene. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross acquit themselves nicely as big-band and jazz composers, their work either lilting unobtrusively or giving scenes some needed bounce. Gary Oldman makes hammy gestures I’m not above enjoying; Amanda Seyfried, as Marion Davies, is by far the most human presence, the closest to a lifeblood; everyone else gets their Depression-era pitter-patter down fine, doing what they can with mouthfuls of information.
Fincher fares little better. There are appreciable, abstract-ish attempts to enliven the biopic and knotty backroom drama of it all—reel changes, grain and celluloid tears in flashbacks, certain optical effects amidst alcoholic daze, mono sound mix—and DP Erik Messerschmidt’s black-and-white photography can find expressiveness at odd turns. (I especially like the way light fixtures register on the lens, an old-movie flair I’m sure is insanely difficult to nail.) Mank’s cinematographic instincts elsewhere ring half-realized, and draining Fincher’s images seems to have sapped at least half his visual instinct—one for color shaping objects, faces, and rooms, the dramatic heft they bear while shifting over new angles.
Cuts feel slacker, shots often hang on the screen, though elasticity is occasionally wrung from verbosity. As written, Mank’s best scene—an ensemble dialogue between stars and moguls at Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party—poses significant challenges to dramatic staging: several speakers, each seated, carrying conversation with a throughline (again with the labor disputes) and digressions (gossip, obviously more fun) in equal balance. A multitude of set-ups ping-pong across the screen, Kirk Baxter’s edits allowing each vantage to pop—a word, a response, an expression, a reminder why this director is who he is. Surprisingly few emerge elsewhere.
So let’s talk about Orson Welles. Word’s circulated that some version of Jack Fincher’s screenplay stepped in line with Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane,” a protracted argument that Welles had siphoned creative credit owed to Mankiewicz’s brilliance. Largely discredited, yet an enduring synecdochical stand-in for anti-auteurist philosophy—needless to say the association concerned many, and I suspect accounted for David Fincher getting ahead of the story in his first published interview on Mank. In final form it does less to avert from Kael’s thesis than reduce, which is not the same as amend. Welles rarely appears, given instead to mythic tones: almost exclusively heard over the phone (courtesy Tom Burke’s decent impersonation) or seen in some obscured form (wearing prosthetics, through a drugged-out hospital visit, at odd angles emphasizing physical imposition) until he appears with Mankiewicz’s (and Mankiewicz’s alone) script, trembling in anger at his partner’s demand for full credit. A physical outburst ensues, “inspires” Kane’s climax, and recalls Walk Hard.
It would necessitate serious concern if there was much sense Mank will shift perception of American cinema’s most enviable genius. But as its defects—listless narrative, somnambulant lead, anemic aesthetics––stagnate, the predominant sensation is desire to see this end: for the movie to be over, for its bad taste to vacate, for a talent as pointed as Fincher’s to get on with anything that’s useful in some demonstrable way. A great artist’s misfire will sting, yet there’s every indication the project bore to him a personal significance it’s frankly not my place to comment. I hope he’s happy.
Mank opens in theaters on November 13 and arrives on Netflix on December 4.