Director: David Fincher
Stars: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tuppence Middleton
Thanks to his episodic endeavours for Netflix – House of Cards but chiefly Mindhunter – it’s been six long years since we were gifted A Film by David Fincher. The drought is up with this stylishly monochrome biopic of rummy Hollywood screenwriter Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz. With it, ‘Finch’ joins the ranks of the many gifted filmmakers to have made a movie about moviemaking. It sits alongside the likes of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Robert Altman’s The Player or Quentin Tarantino’s OUATIH; sharing the luster and wry cynicism of all of the above and more. This is a prestige picture. You can sense the Academy salivating from the off. Expect statuettes.
But while it’s been over half a decade since Finch afforded us anything on this kind of scale, it’s ironic that his picture about pictures will be seen by most on the small screen. Such is the nature of his ongoing relationship with the streaming giant. In the middle of a pandemic, the few theatrical showings that Mank will acquire are sure to be fewer than intended, and sparsely populated at that.
The film finds dear Mank (Gary Oldman) convalescing from a car accident, having recently been taken on as scribe for one Orson Welles (Tom Burke). Dictating to his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), Mank will bring to bear the bones of one of the most feted motion pictures of all time; Citizen Kane. Though it’s protagonist is bed-bound, we’re invited through flashbacks to get a sense of the man; frequently soused, revered and reviled in equal measure. Mank saunters across location shoots and sets, through bars and around back-lots, carrying us on a guided tour of the eminent movers and shakers of ’30s Hollywood as it rallies against the Great Depression. For those fearing the future of cinema at this present time, Mank counters that this isn’t the first time the system has had to weather a storm fraught with bankruptcy and rumour.
“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave the impression of one,” Mank says in defense of his work-in-progress, as Jack Fincher’s witty script acknowledges the futility – and downfall – of so many biopics; Mank grins at it’s own fear of failing its subject. On that front, performance-wise, its a relief to find Oldman dialed back from the pantomime tendencies that marred fare like Darkest Hour. His Herman smirks through sadness, weary of the hucksters, the fraudsters, the schmoes.
Decadent drinks and lively discussion bring to the fore the subject of Hitler and the rise of fascism. The Nazi dictator is dismissed as someone who ought not be taken seriously; a conversation that openly calls to mind a lot of the 2016 commentary on the folly of the Trump campaign. Now that the crooked fat rapist is being booted out of the Oval, Mank might come to be seen as one of the last films of his era; as backhanded a compliment as one could imagine.
Lighting up the screen with the shock of her fashionably bottle blonde hair, Amanda Seyfried shines as Marion Davies; the starlet whom our boozy Mank befriends. Their fleeting interactions evidence Mank at its most easily charming. Reverent as our Finch is, and as handsome as Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography repeatedly shows itself to be, it is Jack Fincher’s script that, fittingly, becomes the movie’s most impressive asset. You’re rarely far from a snappy dialogue exchange, or well-nested Easter egg (a flashing reference to ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ might well reference the 1932 film, but it also feels like a gleeful nod to Zodiac). It’s a shame Jack wasn’t on hand when David last made a biopic (controversially, perhaps, I’ve still never quite been won over by the breathless Sorkinese of The Social Network).
Mank has been a passion project for Finch, a decades-long work-in-progress that might make as tall a tale as its very subject. But it feels oddly passionless. His exactitude is admirable, the attention to detail is as you’d imagine. The picture rattles along. All good things. Still, it’s hard to shake a sense of slightness. For something so personal, it lacks fingerprints. It may be clean, but it’s also a shade too anonymous, with little of the verve and spirit of his spikier pictures. Still, it’s worth noting that this writer values the kinks in this filmmaker’s catalogue (both Alien³ and Panic Room would feature in my top personal 3). Mank is perfectly fine, but its also a shade safe and inscrutable. In a slender year for American film, it may well provide Fincher with the Best Director prize that the Academy will certainly want to afford him while they have the opportunity. But one senses that time will render it one of his lesser works, if only for it’s lack of idiosyncrasy beyond the choice of monochrome.