Mank is available to stream on Netflix on December 4.
By I. Simon
I should probably start off by mentioning that I’m not a huge fan of Citizen Kane. Yes, it’s certainly well acted and well made, and I even agree that it was groundbreaking for cinema as an art form, but I just find the story to lack anything that would make it compelling or emotionally resonant, and I therefore could not find myself caring when I first watched it in 2017 or revisited it earlier this week. When factoring in both the aforementioned and that we live in a world with an overabundance of biopics already, normally I wouldn’t have been looking forward to a film like this, but with someone like David Fincher at the helm, one could hope that a biopic centered on Herman J. Mankiewicz would be something unique. After all, Fincher did give us The Social Network, which is not only arguably his best work as a filmmaker to date, but in itself is a masterpiece that also acts as a prime example of what biopics can be when you have creative and talented people making them.
And maybe that’s why it’s so unfortunate that Mank is without a doubt Fincher’s weakest and dullest film since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
The biggest issue with Mank is its incredibly clunky script. One of the things the film attempts to do to distinguish itself from other biopics is take on an atypical structure; one that is not so dissimilar to the structure of Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, the structure of Mank is incredibly disjointed and only makes the script’s other flaws stand out even greater. With the exception of precisely two scenes that hint at a much better film, one of which being a scene involving banter between multiple industry figures and the other being a several-minute long dialogue exchange between Herman J. Mankiewicz and Marion Davies that closely follows it, the script in itself amounts to a bunch of exposition and not much else. We’re not really given a ton of insight into Herman J. Mankiewicz as a person, and as a result, I still don’t know much about him. Even worse is that the film is nearly void of any emotional depth. I just never felt I was given a reason to care.
But even if the script isn’t very good, surely Fincher’s direction and the overall filmmaking are both able to elevate the material, right? Sadly, not in this case. While the filmmaking is not without its positive qualities, such as some creative sound choices, some occasionally creative editing and visual choices, and solid costume and set design, the visual direction here is a mixed bag. Mank clearly wants to replicate the look and feel of Citizen Kane, but Mank simply looks too digital and not only ends up completely contrasting the filmic look of Citizen Kane, but even negatively affects the solid lighting and framing in the process. What should’ve been one of the most visually unique films of the year ends up looking fairly flat for much of its runtime. The film is also a mess in regards to pacing as a result of its disjointed structure and overly-expository nature, and while I generally love Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I found their score here to be very underwhelming.
If there’s anything else that saves Mank from being a complete failure, it’s the performances. Everyone is mostly solid at the very least here, but there are two standouts in particular. For starters, Gary Oldman is fantastic as Herman J. Mankiewicz despite the script not giving him so much to work with. However, the very best performance in the film comes from Tom Burke, who fully embodies Orson Welles and never once comes across as a glorified impression of him.
Overall, given his rough experiences working in the industry, it makes perfect sense why Fincher wanted to make this. Unfortunately, Mank is another case of a biopic’s metatextual element being significantly more interesting than the actual film itself. While not without merit, it brings me no joy to call Mank not only one of Fincher’s worst films, but also one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
I give Mank a C.