Mank Review: David Fincher’s Love Letter to Old Hollywood
Mank marks the collaboration between heavy-weight Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven, The Social Network) and Netflix. It throws us into the action of Hollywood in the 1930’s from the perspective of the raging alcoholic screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as he writes Citizen Kane, one of the highest acclaimed films of all time. The film is rife with social commentary on the industry at the time, communicating the world’s political ambiguity with World War Two lurking just around the corner.
Fincher goes slightly off-piste in Mank, a black and white love-letter to 1930s Hollywood, much like La La Land was to 1950s Musicals. His romanticisation of the era roars. The punching of the type-writer for scene headings, strong orchestral scores, fuzzy gramophone-like dialogue quality, characters’ faces split up with light strips from drawn blinds and idling cigarettes delicately left balancing on the rim of an ashtray and still smoking. His brilliant direction brings these text-book pictures to life. We’re teleported back into the bustling streets of Hollywood with classic cars, retro poster ads, bellboys with funny hats, three piece suits and tie clips and filterless cigarettes. We are also given an insight into turmoil left behind by the Great Depression, the anticipation of the Golden Era and speculation about what this ‘Hitler’ guy is up to in Germany. Even though Mank is set some ninety years ago, the parallels in-between its financial crisis to ours today were too big to go unnoticed.
The casting pays off, with the great Gary Oldman taking the reigns as the screenwriting protagonist and Amanda Seyfried filling the shoes of a femme fatale-like actress. Despite this, the script hampers his potential and doesn’t give him the space of delivering a game-changer we know he’s capable of. How much wiggle room can an actor have to impress if he’s cemented in a bed for half the film? With this being said, there is credit to be rewarded in the casting department, particularly for not giving in to pressures for mega marketable names unlike the Coen Brother’s Hail Caesar!, starring George Clooney, Scarlett Johnson and Jonah Hill. Going down this path would’ve tainted the artistic integrity and tone which Fincher boasts.
Not long into Mank, once the novelty of its beautiful lighting and striking costumes begins to settle, its serious flaws begin to materialise. Alarm bells start to ring early on, booming ‘style over substance’ and this is incredibly hard to shake off. The film’s runtime of nearly 2 1/2 hours proves to make it a downright tedious experience, boldly toying with audience’s patience levels. Equally, the film is peppered with meaning and conflict that just doesn’t appeal to the common man. The daily endeavours of Herman J. Mankiewicz and his navigation to making one of the best pieces of cinema is actually, quite a dull piece of cinema. Mank prioritises its indulgent commitment to the vintage aesthetic and consequently, neglects the most primitive service of cinema; to entertain.
This trap also has a knock on effect with the flow of the narrative, through the excessive usage of the slow, fade-to-black. Although this editing technique is also a motif from the Noir-era, it’s exhausted and as a result makes the entire film feel very segmented, like a collection of isolated scenes that don’t carry over smoothly on to the next. Middle man, John Houseman (played by Sam Troughton), pays a visit to Herman Mankiewicz, criticising his patient development on Citizen Kane, saying he’s “hardly out of the first act”. What’s amusing with this line is how the concept of plot structure is non-existent in the overarching film, resulting in a narrative that waffles through its generous run-time. Although validation can be given to the importance of flashbacks, it isn’t executed very well or clearly, resulting in a slightly messy narrative.
Mank offers something new in an age of humdrum films built on generic conventions and passive audiences. It packs a theoretically interesting premise, that delivers for a two-minute trailer, but over 135 minutes, it’s empty and falls flat on its face. Fincher won our trust in making biopics with an exciting, slick and intense execution in The Social Network. You’d be forgiven to assume that he copied and pasted his algorithmic approach here with Mank, but alas, as we all know, lightning doesn’t strike twice. Fincher has lost his charm in this project, but what has stayed is his slick dialogue, clever subtext and ‘cigarette burns’ (queue, Tyler Durden monologue). But ask yourself this – if a house can’t be built on sand, can a film stand on aesthetics and dialogue?
Header image credit: The Times