I need to preface this review by stating that David Fincher is my favorite director working in Hollywood today. Films of his like “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “The Social Network” rank among my favorite films of all time. Fincher brings such a deliberate and detail-oriented mindset to his films, which lead to calculated, yet authentic film-going experiences. I’m always going to be first in line for a David Fincher film; so, when I saw that his latest film, “Mank,” was playing in theaters early before its Netflix release, I made sure I was there.
“Mank” follows Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the writer of the universally-acclaimed classic, “Citizen Kane,” through his writing process for the film. In his isolation when writing “Kane,” Mank flashes back to his days working in the studio system for Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and experiencing the corruption and power that the major studios held. The film also focuses on the friendship that Mank forms with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), as well as the disdain he has for her partner, the powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). If these names sound unfamiliar to you, Mank may not be for you because it doesn’t quite hold your hand through the history of old Hollywood. It isn’t completely inaccessible to fresh eyes, but someone who is familiar with the way Hollywood operated in the 1930s will appreciate this film on a whole different level. Simply put, I loved “Mank.”
Regardless of the content of the story, the film itself is technically perfect. Right now, it is the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen all year, and maybe in the past few years. I’m so happy I got to see this film in a theater because it is absolutely suited for it. The film creates so many visual nods and references to “Citizen Kane,” which make it feel like this film was shot during that era of Hollywood. Its striking scenes are created with grand studio lights that pour into the set, creating a dynamic image in tandem with the film’s black-and-white color palette. The sound is also mixed and edited to sound exactly like a film from the 1930s and, of course, the recreation of old Hollywood is as stylish as it is immersive. Every formal element of this film is designed to draw you into the world of the story that Fincher is telling, which it does to a T.
The film is already a shoe-in for Academy Awards in just about every technical category, but you can add assured nominations for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in their roles as the title character and Marion Davies, respectively. Oldman is the definition of a character actor, and this role only cements him more into legend status in Hollywood. His drunken and witty interpretation of this troubled writer is always magnetic, especially as he becomes more endearing as the film progresses. The main surprise here is Amanda Seyfried, who goes toe-to-toe with Oldman in every scene they share. She does the best work of her career with a role that she uses to instantly charm the audience into loving. She’s quick witted, but also emotionally grounded. There are often times where she’ll be tasked with reacting to dialogue of other characters, and her expressions are just as interesting and thought-out as the dialogue being delivered. These two are a true powerhouse duo.
The story itself is also an interesting one, but takes a while to reveal itself. For most of the film, the events play out in a very slice-of-life way, akin to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” You’re enjoying what you’re watching, but it never really feels like the film you were sold on in the beginning. Very rarely do we get in-depth looks at the writing of “Citizen Kane,” but we do get a lot of real motivation through Mank’s experiences and why he would write the film the way he did. I think this is perhaps my biggest issue with the movie. Unless you know “Citizen Kane” forwards and backwards, or only want to watch “Mank” once, a lot of it will go over your head because you won’t exactly grasp the thematic ties between “Kane” and “Mank.”
“Mank” is an excellent film, and certainly among my favorites of 2020. It has loads of charm, two standout performances and gorgeous cinematography. Not to mention, the score by Trent Rezor and Atticus Ross is incredible, per usual. The film sucks you into its world and despite all of the low points and horrible corruption on display, it’s a world I didn’t want to leave. I actually sighed when the film ended, not because I didn’t like it, but because I could have easily watched another hour. Definitely check this film out if you think it’s your cup of tea.