So, this is David Fincher having fun. Mank, written by the exacting filmmaker’s own father Jack Fincher, is an airless look at old Hollywood through the eyes of Citizen Kane scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz. It has lofty ideas on its mind — the tension between art and commerce, between socialism and capitalism, between addiction and sobriety. With the Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s as his playground, Fincher, armed with the carte blanche of Netflix, has an aesthetic and ideological wealth of possibility for where to take the salacious tale of Mankiewicz’s journey to writing that most significant of American films. And yet this jigsaw puzzle never fits together.
The problems begin, as they so often do, with Gary Oldman, completely miscast as Mankiewicz, a man in his mid-60s playing someone almost half his own age. Beginning from a supine state as he writes Citizen Kane’s script while tending a broken leg and attempting to dry out in the Mojave desert, Fincher cuts back and forward through the tinseltown experiences that purportedly inspired Orson Welles’ 1941 classic: namely Mank’s relationship with millionaire William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his partner Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried in fine fettle), who interfere with politics from the vantage of his vast San Simeon estate. It is here, at parties, that Mankiewicz forms a relationship with the pair and becomes disillusioned about Hollywood. Oldman leers into every scene with his face stretched back to pull a face somewhere between “I’m better than you” and “I forgot my next line,” resulting in a hellish performance of smug senility. By contrast, his female co-stars Seyfried and Tuppence Middleton as the “long suffering wife” both play around 10 years above their own age. Hollywood does and doesn’t change, it seems. Mankiewicz is written as a one-liner machine. Upon meeting the “Brooklynese” Davies, he remarks “Your Flatbush was showing,” which may be undeniably Mankiewiczian, but is delivered by Oldman with a blank flatness that sucks the charisma from his comedy.
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Oldman may be a far cry from his days as a punkish Angry Young Man, but the brunt of the blame may not entirely lay at his loafers. Fincher is renowned for forcing his actors to deliver so many takes that their movements are sluggish and “natural,” as a fawning profile in The New York Times recently outlined. His parametric camera movements, though graceful, have nothing of “Old Hollywood” in them. Even instances of CGI giraffes and fire that should alert the viewer to the glorious articfice of Hollywood filmmaking at its best are consigned to the background, as though Fincher is afraid of opening up any part of his schema to the flaws inherent in human artistry. He wants his films to look as though they were made by a bot, and you have to hand him credit — he’s succeeded.
But this zip-zap script requires a different hand. Essential political context is explained through awkward speeches rather than shown. A long discussion at San Simeon of Upton Sinclair’s run for California governor has each major character quipping their ambition, aim and motivation. While Citizen Kane’s instances of “fraud at the polls” and an unloved childhood leading to fruitless ambition will summon gasps of recognition 80 years later in Donald Trump’s world, Mank attempts to find the present in the past with knowing winks to “fake news” and “democracy under threat” that have as much subtlety in a U.S. election year as Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm’s ending title card of “GO VOTE.”
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These references to the modern political situation, whatever that is, are doubtless included less as genuine polemic than as bait to give journalists and awards prognosticators an angle to opine over, increasing Mank’s talking points and both Fincher and Netflix’s chances of Oscar gold. For years now, Netflix has been staking its claim as a Big and Important studio by greenlighting films that aren’t just made by the cream of the Hollywood crop, but reckon with its legacy in some way, from Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman to Welles’ own previously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. See the recurring spectre of Pauline Kael (whose anti-Welles screed Raising Kane is a clear influence on Fincher’s script) over both Mank and Charlie Kaufman’s recent fiasco I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Mank is just the latest installment in Netflix’s self-concious branding strategy. It is telling that, in its late stages, the film shifts its focus to the battle for screen credit between Mankiewicz and Welles (Tom Burke perfects the voice but has little to do) that resulted in one of the most well-known Oscar moments. This algorithmic approach to greenlighting projects is anathema to art.
Mank is always “art” and never “entertainment.” The frat house energy that the film purports to deliver in its many madcap sequences comes across like miserable recollections from an AA meeting. The nostalgia for an unremembered Hollywood Golden Age (You weren’t there, man!) is grimly delivered in one lacklustre scene on the set of a western: a dolly, cowboys on horseback, Marion calling lines, bored “injun” extras sat around reading magazines. How do you make a so-called epic about the Hollywood Golden Era and not show any stars? The Marx Brothers are referenced, and Josef von Sternberg makes a small cameo, while Fincher spends a solid chunk of the film’s early-going introducing a Mankiewicz writer’s room that he never returns to. It hardly matters, as the film’s aesthetic (someone who’s never seen an old movie’s idea of old movies) is a mess of deadened-out monochrome that flattens these high-res images to only so many shades of grey. Frankly, it’s an eyesore, as it’s almost impossible to focus on the faces of the players. This made-for-TV style reveals the touted Fincher technique as something so far removed from the elegant sequence of image and sound that makes Citizen Kane such an enduring, surprising and quintessentially Wellesian production.
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The sprawling canvas of Hollywood is simply too large for a director of procedurals who works best with a contained cast of characters. That’s why Fincher’s films Panic Room and Gone Girl are so good. They deliver the thrills, and any social ideas are just a treat for the inclined audience. Given the vastness of Hollywood itself to fool around in, Fincher is aimless. He needs to hole himself up somewhere and get back to work.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.