Movies whose primary subject matter is movies themselves, or rather, about Hollywood, can be a difficult sell. It may turn out that it romanticises Hollywood’s past, celebrating it as a paragon of culture without looking at its negative sides (like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Or, the opposite could be true. It could be a movie about the inherent evils rife in the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the movie industry was largely unregulated and ran by a select group of a few executives (Trumbo). Mank is an outlier in this dichotomy, as it seems to jump from one side to the other whenever it suits.
But let’s back-track a moment before we get too far into analysing the film, as I fear a fair few of my readers may not have heard of this film. Or if they have, they only did so after the Academy Award nominations were released. I count myself among those people, in fact. I knew there was a film in production about Citizen Kane’s writing, but I didn’t realise it was out, what it was called, or who made it. Just in case anyone is reading this who’s in the same boat, allow me to enlighten you.
Mank is the latest film by director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network). It tells the story of the seminal movie classic Citizen Kane’s writing process. The unorthodox man behind its screenplay Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and the political intrigue that surrounds the time.
Fincher may be a well-regarded director, but it’s fair to say that some of his work has been divisive. In particular, Fight Club has been criticised in the past for its themes of toxic masculinity. Although I think these arguments miss the film’s point, it still remains a figure of controversy to this day. I don’t believe Mank will court any such discussion, though, mainly because I don’t think people will care enough about it to hate it.
I can’t imagine that this opinion will win me many fans, particularly amongst movie purists. Still, I found Mank to be a dreadfully dull experience. What makes this worse is it seemingly has everything going for it; the acting is excellent, the cinematography is superb, all that’s missing is a compelling story, and you can have all the beautiful camera shots in the world, but when there isn’t a story an audience can connect to, your film will always fall flat.
I believe that part of this is down to the lack of a relatable central character. Mank, the person, is sporadically sympathetic, but most of the time, he’s more off-putting than anything. His perceived acid-tongued wit only served to put me off him as a character rather than warm to him. There’s a lack of compelling characters all-round, to be honest. I found myself disliking the vast majority of them; however, they’re very well-acted, they’re just not very redeemable or well-rounded as people. The closest we get to a relatable character is Mank’s wife, Sara (nicknamed ‘poor’ Sara by friends because she is the long-suffering partner of Mank). Even then, she’s only relatable because of what she has to put up within her marriage.
As I said before, these characters are all very well played. Gary Oldman is his usual fantastic self, exemplified best by a rambling, drunken monologue at a party, which was the point where the plot most threatened to become interesting. The ensemble cast is also stellar, if at times uninteresting, with Charles Dance, Tuppence Middleton, and Amanda Seyfried all doing beautiful jobs in making their characters as enjoyable as possible, even if the screenplay ultimately lets them down.
One aspect of the film I liked was the film’s atmosphere, which does a great job of effectively replicating the era. It reminds me of noir films of the time, and in particular, several scenes remind me of the video game L.A Noire, which focuses on a similar time. Even if the story ended up being uninteresting, the effort to realistically reproduce the areas aesthetic at least makes something about it worth talking about.
I understand that this film was a personal one for David Fincher. It was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. In trying to preserve his father’s work, the younger Fincher does an admirable job, directing excellent performances and overseeing some stunning cinematography. Still, he couldn’t give this film its most crucial final ingredient: an interesting narrative. It’s a beautifully realised portrait of a time long since passed, but it doesn’t have enough about it to maintain the attention of an audience in the long term. I dare say that in a regular year, it wouldn’t have received as much attention by the Academy as it has, as cruel as that sounds.
I really wanted to enjoy this film more than I did, but I’m afraid there aren’t enough positive things about it for me to recommend it too thoroughly. I’m glad I watched it once for the performances and visual presentation alone, but I doubt I’ll be in any rush to revisit it.