Mank (2020), A Study in Cinema

David Fincher is a fascinating guy. His parent’s living next door to George Lucas helped him land his first silver screen gig doing modelling on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi before moving up to directing music videos for the like of Madonna, with whom he was in a casual relationship briefly, and Micheal Jackson, among many others. Famously had his career derailed by his directorial debut in feature fiction, Alien³. Fincher is very important to me personally as Fight Club was a real expansion moment for me in terms of getting excited about the possibilities of cinema. He’s helmed two of the best TV shows in recent memory and his last fiction feature, Gone Girl is maybe the dark horse for his best film, even if I don’t think it is personally. He’s gained a reputation for adapting pulp fiction into excellently made, slick movies that marry prestige cinema with exploitation cinema, and he does this, adapting writers like Palahniuk, Flynn, or Larsson has led to some of his most exciting and satisfying films. Prestige films he’s made like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, taking many liberties with a very short story from The Great Gatsby penman F. Scott Fitzgerald is the film of his that maybe is a whipping boy more often than even Alien³. He has made The Social Network though, which is the popular choice for his best film. Working of Sorkin’s best script, Fincher shows that he can take his slick, Micheal Mann inspired style, and apply to a biopic drama with Shakespearean levels of thematic weight about misogyny, capitalism, betrayal, friendship, and institutional problems and repercussions to do with the tech boom. Still though, it’s a movie that has the same style and approach that Fincher brings to almost everything he does, and the one time he deviated from it in the case of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (which I haven’t seen so if you love it please don’t feel bummed), seems to be one of his few misfires. 

In a nearly 30 year career Fincher has previously only made 10 films, and his last one was 6 years ago, so now he comes back to the director’s chair with his most personal picture yet. A slow and meditative tale set in old Hollywood written by his late father, written about the writer of one of the most celebrated films ever, Citizen Kane. That being a one Herman J. Mankiewicz. 

Now, it seems like the dust has settled on it but I feel like even now, you can’t talk about Mank without talking about what people have talked about regarding Mank. David Fincher has gone on a publicity tour and it seems let loose all the hot takes he had saved for the last six years. Why anyone was surprised that David Fincher thought controversial things is still a mystery to me. What shocked me most is that when he said that Welles was essentially a figure destroyed by his own hubris people thought he was wrong? I remember watching the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and coming away with exactly that picture. Yes, Welles was also screwed by a studio system that had little room for tempestuous auteurs but for a select few in those days, and think Fincher would agree with that but all of Welles’ most personal pictures depict romantic, larger than life, caddish vagabonds who live as well as they can and act bigger than everyone but ultimately are let down by and don’t fit into society. It’s why I love films like Chimes at Midnight or The Other Side of the Wind. It’s the same with many reviews of Mank itself which seems to take issue with a superficial resemblance with a contentious analysis of the making of Citizen Kane from Pauline Kael, who otherwise is pretty inarguably one of the best writers about film of all time. I have read whole reviews that state, ‘this film would be good if it was more true to the actual making of Citizen Kane, it resembles this Kael essay too much to be good”, and I just viscerally hate that. One of Fincher’s most celebrated pictures is Zodiac, a film in which the entire thematic core revolves around you confronting within yourself how much you buy into the film essentially posthumously condemning a man who can’t answer back for essentially being a murderer in a famously unsolved case. Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker have both said that their portrayals in The Social Network are inaccurate but I guess they’re not famous directors so their own accounts of their truth don’t matter as much, not that Welles would even really disagree with it in the first place. He, more than anyone, would understand cinema is fiction, and it has no obligation to mirror reality beyond verisimilitude. It is a stupid criticism and I don’t understand it. It’s gotten to the point where I feel bad for the people who just didn’t like the movie because their, admittedly bad, take, gets mixed in with the crazies. Armond White has gone as far to call David Fincher and this film fascist which seems to both be a wilful misinterpretation of the film and also far closer to the actual subject matter of the film than anyone else’s bad takes about it.

The writing of Citizen Kane is only really vaguely tangential to Mank. It follows Gary Oldman as Mank himself, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and his life and involvement in local Hollywood politics, his deals with the formation of unions, romantic desires, and his struggles with alcoholism and also generally being a total cad. Gary Oldman’s Mank shares more with Orson Welles’ later self iterations than Orson Welles does in the movie. Mank‘s Mank is an alcoholic, melancholic, sharp tongued, belligerent arsehole, but he has his charms and his arc is a fascinating thing to watch. He even, really, shares Welles’ arrogance  and ambition, but in a much more disaffected, ground into the dirt by life, way. You almost get the feeling that in the film Welles looks at what Mank has become and thinks, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, and that’s why he wants to control him and envelop him in his process, it’s a kind of Jungian, Freudian resolution of the darker mirror self. There’s a scene where a studio exec reads the script for Citizen Kane and tells him that the changing perspectives was a great touch and you can see his pride there, just for a moment, seeds that not only explain his oafish behaviour previous but grow into the complex person he later becomes in the film. Mank is a slow burn character study like so many Fincher films previous but maybe his most unassuming. It is a writer’s portrait of a writer, especially this being a posthumous screenplay credit and the writer’s only screenplay credit. Fincher said the reason he doesn’t take writing credits is because he grew up seeing his father, Jack, who’s screenplay this is, do that job, and he knows the misery and hardship that comes with it, and he refuses to claim that mantle. This level of personal understanding and reverence for the craft comes through in every way. The way writing tends to involve a radical kind of empathy that affects your politics, the way spending so much time in your head like a writer has to can turn you into an insufferable jackass, and the way that if you take that career you must just have a little bit of ego in you that can ruin your life if it runs wild. All of this is told with a kind of raging humanity we rarely see these particular subjects approached with. 

It is also a writer’s film in that it is written to the nth degree, which will go probably as far as your affinity for movies where everyone is much wittier than real life people all times and seems to know what everyone’s about to say so that they can perfectly set them up for the next one liner goes. Much like Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network but whereas that movie and script felt cutting edge in its modern sensibilities, this is very much a throwback script to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success, His Girl Friday, or, indeed, Citizen Kane, where the wit goes like a well made grandfather clock instead of a sleek Swiss wristwatch like Sorkin. This is the kind of film with an off the cuff insult of Joseph Conrad that you’ll only detect if you already have thoughts and opinions on Joseph Conrad, and you’re willing and able to, in the moment, pick through Jack Fincher’s warped and verbose verbiage of the kind that is perfect to write to come out of the mouth of Orson Welles. This is the same kind of thing as when in Zodiac, Mark Ruffalo’s character goes to see Dirty Harry, a gag you’ll only fully appreciate if you know already that Dirty Harry was based on the real life person Ruffalo is playing. A lot has been made of the way Fincher’s filmmaking has changed to accommodate this tone and style. Maintaining his digital cinematography but in all other ways crafting a film that looks and feels like one of the golden age studio films. Fincher regulars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross change the sound of their normal soundtrack collaborations from the glitchy electronica and ambient soundscapes to more orchestral and luscious compositions, and it’s their best work yet. I remember Trent Reznor dropped a website where you could listen to the whole soundtrack as well as view set photos a month or two before the movie was released and the genre shift threw me for a loop before I realised how much I loved what they were doing, and in the movie it does what good soundtrack work should do, blends into the background whilst accentuating the drama and setting the tone. The editing is magnificent as always, just stringing together these wonderful and daring dialogue driven set pieces full of exchanges like, ‘”you want to make a film about a prostitute”, “what’s wrong with that, my mother was nothing but a whore?”, with a real zip and energy. Fincher has made many quite long films like Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Gone Girl, but they’ve always still felt incredibly short because of their tight pacing and stories that call for that length, but Mank feels slightly longer than any of the three at a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes, because it’s not a slick David Fincher thriller, it’s a film unlike anything he’s made before, it is a meditative slow burn drama with some delicious monologues… and it’s maybe his most overtly political film since Fight Club

When I said that the writing of Citizen Kane is only really tangential to Mank, what it’s really about is the formation of unions in Hollywood, it’s about the ramifications of that and really, it’s about the (fictional), radicalisation of Mank. It’s about Upton Sinclair’s local electoral race that mirrors Kane’s in the film, it’s about how the ramifications of all of this mirror Louis B Mayer and William Randolph Hearst, played by a note perfect Charles Dance. It has a deep sympathy for the politics of unionisation but never shies away from the failures of Mank himself, and how he as a person degrades the deeper into this political scene he gets. It’s an incredibly nuanced take on this scene that refuses to condemn or valorise anyone in particular, and I loved that aspect of it. It is the politics of this film that are the real heart of it, and it also can be seen almost as a reader for Citizen Kane in this way, even if it doesn’t mirror the real life backstory of Citizen Kane, the themes of this movie, and how they implicate certain people, political ideas, and political affiliations, really inform the pointed ideas that Citizen Kane contains for audiences that maybe don’t have the contemporary context to see that, in the same way as the Suspiria remake did that for the original. 

There are people out there who have taken shots from Mank side by side with classic celluloid black and white as if to ridicule it and I find that ridiculous. Fincher likes to shoot digital because it enables him to be meticulous on a smaller budget and do the endless takes he feels like he needs to do on a more affordable budget. His last film, Gone Girl, a not very action packed film, already ran $61 million because of how much work goes into the specificity of every choice in his films. He likes to VFX particle effects in almost every shot, re-adjust framing in post, VFX blood on so you can do multiple takes quickly, green screen endless backgrounds, a way of making films Fincher pioneered through films like Zodiac, and if you’ve seen films like The Martian or Parasite, a lot of what they do in terms of cost cutting through digital effects in places you wouldn’t think to look were pioneered by Fincher. So if he’s undertaking a stylistic endeavour like this, where you have to meticulously recreate a whole anachronistic way or making films, why wouldn’t he want to shoot digital? The reported budget of Mank is between $20 million and $30 million so I would say the endeavour paid off. It’s not the first time someone’s attempted to recreate celluloid through digital. While large chunks of the Paul Thomas Anderson picture Inherent Vice were shot on film, large parts of it were shot on digital and then made in post production to look like the aged and heat damaged film stock they shot the rest of the film on. Mike Flanagan’s Ouija: Origin of Evil was exclusively shot on the digital camera Arri Alexa XT Plus but many people were fooled into thinking it was shot on old school celluloid. If you compare side to side films made then and Mank, of course it’s not a perfect match, but it’s meant to be evocative. In the same way the story of Mank is only meant to have verisimilitude, not be a literal recreation of life but a believable and evocative recreation of it, all the style needs to do is recreate that feeling, which at least for me, it did. 

This is not to say Mank is flawless, there are handily five films in Fincher’s canon that are better. For a start asking me to believe that Gary Oldman can have sexual chemistry with Amanda Seyfried or that they’re even the same age, that’s definitely a big error, and I don’t know how someone as smart as Fincher thought they could pull it off. It also can feel at times kind of ramshackle and ragamuffin, but it’s shambolic visage is, for me, one of its more charming elements. 

Mank reminded me of films like A Face in the Crowd and The Sweet Smell of Success, films that show you the ugly side of show business while giving you razor sharp and morally questionable characters while still pushing fundamental morals that I think we should all strive for to do with basic human empathy in ways that feel like radical truth to power. It’s a shame that the messages of Mank feel radical in today’s climate, because we’ve been making mainstream cinema out of them for decades. This is the film that really tells you that Fincher can really do anything he sets his mind to, so stylistically and tonally different it is from anything else he’s done, and this it makes the fact that he continues to adapt pulpy trash into excellent cinema all the more beautiful to me.

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