Alternately hard-nosed and dewy-eyed, Mank has been the most fiendishly entertaining movie ever since Ben Affleck’s Argo. It’s satirical, but it’s sweet, weary, but vengeful—unlike it’s anything director David Fincher has ever done.
An early scene offers a kind of disclaimer. In two hours, you can’t capture a man’s life, says our protagonist, screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. The best that you can hope for is an impression. Mankiewicz, or Mank, as he is affectionately known about the city, seems to have always been armed with witticisms like this. Even and particularly) when he’s drunk.
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the imminent Second World War, Mank is part-biopic, part-manifesto—a non-conventional film that acts not as a photograph of a writer’s life but as a painting. Like Fincher’s best film, The Social Network, it also tries to answer an argument about authorship, about an artifact of greater cultural significance than even Facebook.
Citizen Kane is the most excellent film of all time.
Directed by the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is generally recognized as the greatest film of all time. It is also the subject of a great deal of speculation regarding its screenplay. Officially, both Mankiewicz and Welles shared credit (and also Oscar’s only film). But Mank, the film, indicates that Mankiewicz was Citizen Kane’s only writer. The film was the product of his disintegrating imagination, of his anxieties’ creative fireball; it was his magnum opus. But the Welles’s.
But in those days, it was normal for authors to do unrecognized film work. Mankiewicz himself was instrumental in writing The Wizard of Oz and is widely known to be the artistic force behind the Kansas film series. In Mank, the drunken writer collapses on the bed and declares that Oz will sink the studio. He’s been mistaken.
Mankiewicz, played magnificently by Gary Oldman, would not come across as a man of tremendous instinct. He appears to get work almost by accident—maybe after impressing an important studio head with his wit at a function or by giving a helping shoulder to someone’s sister. He was the man of a man, the man of a woman, the man of a town.
Mank is the story of the conditions under which he wrote Citizen Kane—against time and in solitude. He was bedridden, beleaguered, and humiliated; his life experiences influenced the protagonists of the film and led to his increasing contempt for the film industry. Having roundly dismissed the idea that Welles had something to do with Citizen Kane’s fiction, Mank was perhaps as unkind to the ‘dog-faced prodigy’ as Bruce Lee was to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
But unlike Tarantino, who had been embroiled in a related authorship conflict with Roger Avary on Pulp Fiction, Fincher had never written any of his own films. In Mank, he takes a picture of the author’s theory—that the director is the only artistic voice behind a film—and, in typically cheeky fashion, Fincher chooses to prove his case by demolishing the illusion of possibly the most glorious of all Old-Hollywood directors, Orson Welles.
Tom Burke catching the courage that the director was so renowned
Mank, the film, restricts Welles’ involvement to only a handful of scenes—most of which happen over long phone calls, with the booming voice of actor Tom Burke catching the courage that the director was so renowned for. Without Mankiewicz, though, there’s hardly a moment.
Working off his late father Jack’s screenplay, Fincher gives the film a non-linear structure. Mankiewicz’s ‘present-day’ sequences, sequestered at the California ranch in a race against time to transform his story. Intersected with flashbacks to important moments in his life. Both sections have breakneck energy, with Fincher making daring plays on the chessboard, jostling hundreds of pieces as the emphasis narrows, and only the two kings remain.
His brilliant gimmick here is to emulate the look of an old Hollywood movie using time-specific methods, such as rear-projection, matte paints, and scratchy mono music. Yet, crucially, Fincher appears to be one of the biggest crusaders of digital filmmaking—Anti-Christopher Nolan, if you will.
Even here, Fincher and his filmmaker, Erik Messerschmidt, have opted to use custom-made RED cameras in a film that was positively asked to be filmed on film stock, with vintage lenses and equipment uncovered from museums. He also failed to fire at the more realistic 4:3 Academy Scale. The directors’ Steven Soderbergh and Michel Hazanavicius used their monochrome throwbacks, The Nice German and The Artist.
Mank is a technically exciting film, likely to be examined by filmmakers for years to come. Any shot insert will be evaluated, and every frame will be ported over. Netflix would almost definitely introduce several features, giving a taste into Fincher’s obsessed mind behind the curtain. Unlike Citizen Kane, who slipped into darkness almost immediately after its publication (until it was re-evaluated years later),
Mank will ‘trend’ online—dissected on message boards and theorized in video essays. Yet, it’s too early to say if it’s going to stand the test of time.