Mank Review: David Fincher returns with a compelling biopic

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At one point, most famous contemporary directors are making a film about the process of making movies, whether it’s actually a film crew like that of Wes Anderson. Aquatic life or Paul Thomas Anderson Boogie Nights, or about an operation that suspiciously resembles a film crew, like Christopher Nolan’s Start.

The surprise of David Fincher’s Netflix movie Mank isn’t it another beloved author made his film out of the movies, is that Fincher’s version isn’t about a visionary, obsessive director – real or metaphorical. He is a self-employed writer: Herman J. Mankiewicz, a frequent uncredited screenplay doctor in Golden Age Hollywood, and a credited co-writer of Citizen Kane, who shared the film’s only Oscar with director star Orson Welles.

While Fincher has a reputation closer to Welles’ controlling greatness than the witty and discouraged writer who can’t help but make devastating cracks, the screenplay credit for Mank reveals a possible source of this unexpected loyalty: It is written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, who completed his project in the late 1990s. (The Elder Fincher shared the hybrid journalism and screenwriting experience of Mankiewicz.) Mank does not really concern a Citizen Kane credit arbitrage. The Welles movie smokes when Mank (Gary Oldman) decides he wants his name in the photo after initially agreeing to anonymity. But for most of the movie, Welles is an offscreen presence, and when he does show up, Tom Burke’s wobbly imitation diminishes his role.

Instead of focusing on the actual achievement of Citizen Kane, the film travels back and forth across time, covering Mankiewicz’s 1930s experiences in Hollywood and in the social circles of mogul William Randolph Hearst (The iron Throne star Charles Dance), who inform the Kane scenario. Mankiewicz gets to know Hearst through a slightly naughty bond with his mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Other featured Old Hollywood characters include Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).

Years later, Mank works on Welles’ mission as he is sidelined, recovers from a car accident, and (temporarily, barely) restricted from alcohol by his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). As he continues to dictate pages to Rita, the flashbacks reach the election for governor of California in 1934, where Mank becomes disillusioned with the hit against progressive candidate Upton Sinclair (played briefly by no less than Bill Nye, the Science Guy). Meanwhile, Mank falls into an increasingly destructive alcoholism.

Image: Netflix


The push-pull structure is vaguely reminiscent of Citizen Kane, but it lacks the sophisticated, propulsive energy that fuels the storytelling in multiple interviews of this classic. The fluidity is replaced by slamming subtitles which identify the year and the place in terms of the scenario: “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS – DAY – 1930 (FLASHBACK) ”, and so on. Is it a commentary on the work effort that can fit into even an agile storyline, or is the movie itself a little professional? Fincher transforms this ambiguity into a playful aspect that was lacking even in some of his pulpal adaptations. Where movies like like The girl with the dragon tattoo can feel like demanding and incessant journeys to nowhere in particular, Mank bask in its dreamy atmosphere.

This atmosphere stems from a strange and mixed style. Fincher uses contemporary-appropriate black-and-white cinematography and adds fake “cigarette burns” to the corner of the screen to simulate reel changes. But unlike any Hollywood movie from the 1930s or 1940s, Mank was shot on digital cameras, in ultra-wide 2.35 format. Images from movies have a dark, smoky quality that sometimes resembles old movies, and sometimes heightens memories of old movies. Even the opening credits are hybrid: they’re presented in a retro font and format that mimic classic title cards (Netflix becomes “Netflix International Pictures”), but the actors’ names are built into the set like the opening. extremely modern. credits to Fincher’s Panic room.

Some may take this as a sign of Fincher’s lack of commitment to the bit – an inability to immerse themselves in the past. Whatever the reasons, the effect it produces is often transfixing. When a hangover Mank comes across an outdoor movie set on the Hearst property and chats with Davies between takes, the spotlight and fake smoke produce an alternate reality overlay on a natural background. (Later, Mank reacts to an open window in his cabin with “Jesus, what is that?” It’s sunlight.) An elite party at Hearst Estate is not intimate , despite its exclusivity; it’s full of famous characters spread across a huge room in one conversation full of jokes.


Image: Netflix


Sometimes the sheer number of familiar faces associated with familiar names becomes overwhelming. Seyfried’s performance stands out in part because his portrayal of Davies shines so brightly outside of Mank’s orbit, where other characters, like Mank’s wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), have to turn or ultimately leave. (Seyfried’s playing here also has a sharpness that his mushier work lacks.) As for Mank himself, Oldman was older than Mankiewicz when he died, let alone 15-20 years earlier, when the film was shot. location. But Fincher also makes this disconnect work: even at his peak, Mank conducts himself with fiery resignation – a paradoxical recognition that his saving graces (talent, spirit, certain kinds of principle) will not actually save him.

Although the film is unofficially inspired by Pauline Kael’s 1971 account of the creation of Citizen Kane (which was largely refuted in the following years), it’s ultimately not a writer’s revenge or even a complaint, at least not about screenwriting in particular. Fincher’s film on the movies seems to want to try to work in a system encompassing enough to impose itself on both fantasy and reality. Mank’s film version is insightful enough to see this, and he struggles to protect himself, whether it’s with detached intelligence or his good friend, drug addiction. His methods of protecting themselves work, until they don’t.

Mank is streaming on Netflix now.

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