By Josh Silva
Graphic By Jane Wilson
After budgetary concerns cancelled both of his upcoming projects, the third season of Mindhunter and a blockbuster World War Z sequel, star auteur David Fincher dusted off a passion project of his: a script written by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, about the life of Herman Mankewicz (Gary Oldman), co-writer (or as the film would have you believe, writer) of the most canonized of pictures, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Though hardly warranting discussion in the same breath as the director whom his script lambastes, Fincher’s painstaking formalism elevates material, which in any other director’s hands would be rendered bland, into memorable entertainment of the highest order. His trademark perfectionism is not just a guarantee of shot-by-shot consistency, but of tonal, thematic, and diegetic consistency. That is, until Mank.
A film of jarring fluctuations, Mank can demonstrate the rich, chiaroscuro apex of digital black-and-white cinematography in one scene only to cast a drab, murky veil in the next. More often than not, Fincher chooses the latter. The film exists in an odd suspension between the crisp digital style Fincher has perfected, and a misguided mimicry of an “old movie” look. The film’s sound was recorded in mono (another muddling effect), it simulates film grain and negative splotches and it has a period-accurate score. This score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is the film’s most outstanding attribute. Working in an unfamiliar style, they create an exceptionally inventive synthesis of their sensibilities and those of 1930s music, the one successful example of the film’s marriage of two opposing aesthetics. Despite these choices, Fincher does not commit to impersonation; he shot the film on RED’s latest digital cameras, liberally uses CGI, and stages it like all his other pictures. The dullest, most detextured scenes are ironically the ones with the most faux celluloid effects. In trying to capture the best of each world, he undermines the qualities of both.
Given all the ground Mank covers, it’s surprising how little is revealed about our titular character. This is not intentional, mystique-building obfuscation, but surprisingly amateurish underdevelopment. Again, Fincher’s meticulousness has previously precluded sloppiness, yet in this film it runs amok. All supporting characters are quick to affirm Mank’s genius, one which the audience can’t grasp when Mank spends half the film incapacitated and drunk. His distinguished wit and compulsive self destruction are enough to hold the viewer’s attention, but scarcely constitute a complex character. The film’s two best scenes demonstrate these respective characteristics and the tension they create with an otherwise insubstantial supporting cast. The same supporting characters who gravitate toward Mank’s alleged brilliance share paper-thin dynamics with him: his wife is given only a trace of agency, and his friendship with his brother hardly extends beyond the obligatory, “Remember when we were kids?” exchange. His most interesting relationship is with William Randolph Hearst, the basis for Citizen Kane, who takes Mank under his wing.
Mank’s numerous plot threads all begin promisingly, but soon wear as thin as the characters. Far too much time is spent on the framing device, the pre-writing procrastination of Kane, which hinges on another underdeveloped relationship between Mank and his secretary, Rita Alexander. Alexander’s central conflict is so half-heartedly executed that its conclusion borders on self-parody. That storyline ends with a baseless villainizing of Orson Welles, which even with merit would still feel illogical, as the tension caused by his megalomania is resolved just as quickly as it began. The film’s thorough look into 1930s Hollywood often relies on cheap name-drops, but its analysis of the industry’s wicked intertwining with politics garners initial interest. Yet for all that happens personally and historically in the film’s timeframe, little changes about Mank. Though he does deliver a brazen monologue under the influence, the real accumulation of his loss, regret, and self-destruction is felt most through his writing. As Orson Welles said, “Only art can explain the life of a man – and not the contrary.” Mank certainly enriched my appreciation of Citizen Kane, but by taking that contrary route, it will always be supplementary to Mankewicz’s art. Fincher may have let the script’s many flaws slide out of a commitment to his father’s vision. Seeing Mank as one tyrannical director’s homage to an unsung writer via a film featuring the same dynamic tells a far more interesting story than any Jack Fincher biopic could.
Like Kane, one senses that a mosaic is being revealed, scene by scene, panel by panel. Yet Mank’s fragments never form a whole, not from lack of a Rosebud, but from the absence of any convergence or resolution of its numerous threads. Mankewicz explains Kane’s, and by extension Mank’s structure by saying, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” All Mank leaves is the quickly fading impression of a real film.