When 26-year-old Orson Welles developed his debut film Citizen Kane in 1941, he famously demanded complete creative control over the project and even though it was extremely uncommon for a first-time director, RKO Pictures wisely heeded his wishes. Almost 80 years later, director David Fincher currently finds himself in a seemingly similar situation of artistic authority with Netflix. Starting out early as an executive producer on their first hit series House of Cards and continuing as a showrunner for the similarly successful Mindhunter, he’s built up enough goodwill with the streaming behemoth to bring a long-gestating biopic to life. It’s difficult to associate the term “passion project” with a director as notoriously analytical and meticulous as Fincher, but whatever soft spot he had for his latest film Mank would have gone better untouched.
It’s 1940 and revered screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is at something of a low point. After sustaining a broken leg from a car accident, he’s bedridden and perpetually at the bottom of a bottle when wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) reaches out for help with a new project. Given a 60 day deadline, “Mank” dictates his script one word at a time to his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) as she types out what would become the Oscar-winning screenplay for Citizen Kane. We flip back and forth through time as we see Mank’s apparent influences on his Shakespearean story, including his relationship with powerful magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s gregarious mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Scripted by David Fincher’s late father Jack before his passing in 2003, Mank is undoubtedly well-researched both in regards to Kane‘s towering mythology and to the culture of post-Depression show business. Packed with snappy dialogue from the primary players that cultivated Kane and niche references to the economic and political climate of 1930s California, the exhaustive script is likely on the money when it comes to historical accuracy. But just because it’s right doesn’t mean it’s compelling and even though the majority of the characters are fantastically witty, their journeys and motivations are thoroughly uninteresting. Unless you’re up on your intermediate knowledge of early Hollywood, you may have a hard time following when and where you are in the story but you’ll have a harder time caring either way.
Fincher, who somehow made computer hacking exciting in his Kane-inspired The Social Network, can’t do the same for on-screen script writing. Shot digitally in black-and-white by DP Erik Messerschmidt and scored by Bernard Herrmann-inspired composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mank aptly apes the inimitable style of its predecessor. Sporting a runtime 12 minutes longer than the film that inspired it, the wearisome biopic also recalls Kane‘s then-revolutionary labyrinthine plot structure by way of superimposed screenplay excerpts that shift the chronological gears more fitfully than a crummy Series 60 Cadillac. Fincher seeks to make clear the inextricable link between his film and Kane but instead gets closer to the unruly and listless nature of another Welles film: The Other Side of the Wind, which was coincidentally revived by Netflix in 2018 after decades of developmental disrepair.
Much like the film in which he’s starring, Oldman is straining hard for Oscar adoration but his performance is stiflingly rote for an actor of his range and caliber. In the film’s inevitable string of award nominations, I fear the Academy will overlook the work of Tom Pelphrey, who was excellent as Ben in the most recent season of Netflix’s Ozark and marks Mank’s brother Joseph as the film’s lone engaging character. The movie’s most engrossing scene, a confrontation between the two brothers about the dangers of releasing the potentially controversial script, comes much too late in the story to set things right. Perhaps the first boring movie that Fincher has ever made, Mank is a frenzied footnote-laden film which aspires to be a Peloton workout for cinephiles but ultimately comes across as a trivial exercise in self-importance.
Score – 2/5
Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Sound of Metal, a music-based drama starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke about a heavy-metal drummer whose life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Coming to premium on demand is Ammonite, a period romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan about a burgeoning relationship between an acclaimed but overlooked palaeontologist and a young tourist.
Also available to rent digitally is Black Bear, a dramedy starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott about a filmmaker at a creative impasse who seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup