Reviewed by Brandon Vander Hey
Much to my surprise, Mank is not the movie about the writing of Citizen Kane, nor is it The Life and Times of Herman Mankiewicz. As illuminating about the man as it is, delightfully entrenched in the period with the offbeat cinematic gusto of David Fincher as it may be, this is ultimately a deconstruction of American sociopolitical culture. This is a witty, sharp, and entertaining film, but to really enjoy it, you have to presuppose Citizen Kane and its historical impact as directly linked to the film’s time and subtext; without telling the story through this lens, the whole ordeal would be pointless.
Citizen Kane exposes on the page the folly of man when adherent to the luxury of excess and material reward through Mank’s disgust with the conservative traditionalism, as well as his deep ties to those circles. As an insider looking in, a fly on the wall observing depression-era America’s elite in their natural environment, he has potentially the most fundamentally necessary ground to be their scribe. He knows their humanity, blusters around drunkenly, deep in the belly of the beast. The impermanence of wealth and the proverbial “mo money mo problems” -ness of it all is one thing, but Mank is more interested in the resulting societal destruction from the blind eye. When people cling to power and tradition, the bloody rivers of suffering and poverty left in their wake is a cancer that lasts generations. You can’t dress it up on camera forever. Eventually, someone in the audience points a pistol at their head and pulls the trigger.
Mank is quite the movie, and I’ll admit I didn’t start off dazzled. David Fincher is a master visual storyteller, and initially I found his stylistic choices jarring. The decision to pay aesthetic tribute to the cinema of its era through sound design and black & white cinematography and shoot on digital is just confusing. Even though I love most of what goes down in Mank with all my heart, I still don’t get that. It certainly allows more freedom and gives a more comfortable home to some of the movie’s VFX shots, but that makes it feel a bit less cozy to say the least. The Finch loves his color grading and those deep black tones, and those don’t really work here either. There is some breathtakingly clear and resonant imagery during sequences set in the evening and indoors, but that darkness doesn’t go over so well in the sunlight. You could make an argument that it aids the movie’s more cynical, subversive take on the time, but I think that’s maybe giving too much credit. It just doesn’t look great sometimes. Beyond that, the story’s framing through a screenplay, with onscreen text describing exterior shots and (FLASHBACK) notation setting up the scenes is a bit wonky. Once the film finds its rhythm, though, it’s gangbusters good.
Gary Oldman turns in one of the finest performances of his career. He has Mank’s wit, drunkenness, and his incisive aptitude for penetrating the facade of his surroundings all on lock. It’s a thrill to watch Mank sit at the dinner parties of his oligarch class brethren and run the show. Oldman revels all the moments, the subtle and the showy. The script, written by Jack Fincher (dead Dad shout out!) is superb. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score? Come on. And even though Fincher’s stylistic choices are an issue to me in specific ways, he was the guy for this job.