REVIEW: ‘Mank’ (2020) is a Light-Attempt at Recreating Golden Age Hollywood

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Mank is an interesting concept on paper, but in reality a dull affair with many more interesting stories underneath it.

At the start of the year, there were countless films that people had anticipated for 2020. But after multiple postponements now being pushed to 2021, there was little left for cinephiles to sink their teeth into. There was one final shining glimmer of hope for December however, David Fincher’s Mank, his first film in over 6 years. But like most of this year, it ends up leaving us just waiting for the future once more.

Based on a screenplay by his father Jack, Fincher’s Mank follows the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a Hollywood player who is most famed for his co-writer credit on Citizen Kane (1941) – which is often argued as the greatest film ever made. Whilst most of Fincher’s work has been paperback thrillers cast in a low-contrasted, grey haze, Mank seemed to be a stylistic reset for the director. Embracing the changeover cues, Golden Age calligraphy and so forth – Mank throws you directly into 1930s America. Scene introductions are shown as they would be in a screenplay, reassuring this is a screenwriter’s worldview. But there’s something fake to all of this, it strives so hard to create an image of this 1930’s period but falls at the basics visually. Incorporating a monaural sound mix (all separate soundtracks into one specific track) doesn’t have its desired effect when your 1930s homage is shot on digital in widescreen. The Lighthouse last year showed the benefit and stunning effect it can have so it feels like such a wasted opportunity with the direction that Mank went in.

Despite the underwhelming visual presence, the sound design and score is phenomenal work. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are shoe-ins for the award season and if their soundtrack for Soul is as good as people say it is, they could be receiving double nominations. Whilst the score resembles this era – noirs, thrillers and dark drama during the WWII period of Hollywood – the story takes a similar route in depicting a full picture of Mankiewicz’s life. It’s hard to really describe the synopsis of this film other than it being a focus on Mankiewicz himself – the basis is still on him writing Citizen Kane but not in the way that many may interpret after seeing promotional material before the film’s release. The timeline flashes back and forth from many different moments and scenes, including a whole range of Hollywood’s elite. Mankiewicz is greeted by Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) when walking through MGM studios whilst also making a fool of himself at a party hosted by mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

Amanda Seyfried in an elaborate feather costume.
Image Courtesy of Netflix.

There are plenty of references for film lovers to try and spot, flashes of posters and namedrops of famed actors and directors. But whilst previous movies about the Golden Age have followed this formula and more than often succeeded, Fincher is so entangled in his own cynicism that all of this just seems fake and crude. Fincher isn’t known for being an enthusiastic filmmaker and the way he approaches this era of film is truly enlightening. The magic of the movies is not seen in rose-tinted glasses like before but this time like a factory churning out content in exchange for money. Whilst this era is often romanticised and myself included guilty of doing such, Fincher is somewhat right to give an honest depiction of what the people at the top were like. These same producers were the ones who bullied, starved and belittled their actors and directors, with countless examples to mention.

But just when you think Mank has found its angle, that there’s a certain approach to keep it as a top Oscar contender, it contrasts itself by trying to depict its main character between a rock and a hard place. Whilst we have these producers in Mankiewicz ear on one side, we supposedly having a pushy and controlling director by the name of Orson Welles (Tom Burke) on the other. Welles is a figure that’s been depicted numerous times like a dictator of his own work, who would sulk and moan if he didn’t get his own way. But this depiction has been rejected countless times by Welles’ closest collaborators and peers. However it’s quite plain to see why Hollywood would want to further this idea of Welles, who was a leftist young and up-comer gaining traction in a Hollywood which would soon begin its witch hunt of supposed communists and blacklist any non-conservative. Mank’s screenplay is based directly off a Pauline Kael essay, a famous writer and critic of this era. But having been disproved by director Peter Bogdanovich, one of Welles’ closest collaborators it feels like salt in the wounds to see a final act of Welles being enraged by supposedly having to share credit.

A stylised Fincher film set in the Golden Age of Hollywood feels like one of those mash-ups you can only dream of but after seeing the finished result, maybe we’d of been better off with a third season of Mindhunter. Mank is an interesting concept on paper, but in reality a dull affair with many more interesting stories underneath it.

Header Image Courtesy of Netflix.

Dir: David Fincher

Written by: Jack Fincher

Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance