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MOVIES: Mank - Review

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Mank is the latest film from David Fincher, a director known for his meticulously brilliant masterpieces like The Social Network, Zodaic and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Unfortunately – it’s a rare misfire from the director, respectable in what it’s aiming for but cold and distant in its structure with never really anything to keep audiences invested in the film on its shoulders. With a script from Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, Mank thrusts us into the 1930s golden age of Hollywood, seen earlier this year fabulously in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. Make no mistake about it: the film is a brilliant recreation of the period that gets everything right down to the last detail, including the film’s black-and-white colouring being used as a homage to the pictures of the era, but unlike Hollywood, and to an extent Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood the year before, Mank fails to be much of a film, instead feeling more like the most by-the-numbers biopic from the director yet, doing just enough to come alive with a beating heart and soul, in a way that puts it one level above the tepid Darkest Hour and other films of its ilk.

Orson Welles is a hotshot director is on the verge of making his next great epic: Citizen Kane. Chances are, you’ve probably heard of that movie before. So he turns to Herman J. Mankiewicz, a scathing social critic and screenwriter with a drinking and gambling problem, to get the screenplay written in a short window that he, removed from his devices, is struggling to meet in time. Mank utilises a myriad of flashbacks framed around the device of Mank writing Citizen Kane, being influenced by various events that happened over the course of his life and the people that he met. You don’t have to have watched the Welles classic to have watched the movie, and to Mank’s credit it makes itself accessible on its own as a movie to newcomers looking to know more about Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age”.

But in reality, it is presented as anything but, with Fincher showing us the darker underbelly of the city of stars: directors accept jobs for politicians that they hate knowing their impact could help swing elections in favour of a shot at the big time, and futures are lost or made at fancy, high-stakes dining room parties that discuss whether the coming crisis in Germany is anything the United States should be worried about, whilst at the same time dismissing 42nd Street because it is made from a different studio, Warner Bros. With the elite studio itself that Mank calls his home being MGM we see stars traded between operations like football players, deals are struck as though they’re signing the next Kylian Mbappe or Lionel Messi, and the farewells of stars from the studio that has all of them is treated as a massive loss to the company. But in Hollywood, everything is a business, and life moves on, even when staff are told to take mandatory paycuts and there is a looming threat of Tinseltown simply just picking up and moving somewhere else.

I liked Mank the most when it was revelling in recreating this period with a noirish undertone to it, or to put it in other words, the film where it is at its most risk-taking and formula-averse, which are ironically, the moments when the film isn’t purely focused on Mank writing Citizen Kane. This is helped by the fantastic cast and the character-focused nature of the script that helps us easily define who these people are, what makes them tick, their dreams, their flaws, their ambitions and their desires all realised before our eyes: Amanda Seyfried plays Marlon Davies to precision with one of the best performances that I’ve seen all year, captivating the screen and out-acting the brilliant Gary Oldman in his own movie. Charles Dance, as ever, strikes an intimidating pose just by being in the room and doing nothing, and Lily Colins is also praise-worthy here. There’s a lot to like in how the film’s made: fans of 1930s will adore its recreation, if you liked the references and call-backs in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, you’ll find yourself right at home here.

The film’s key themes touch on the divide between the artist and their work, the divide between the creator and the product. People are forced to work against their ideals with Mank being presented as the soul exception, an outsider amongst everyone who is trying their hardest to fit in: he takes a costly bet with a Republican on election night out of principal, in favour of a Democrat Presidential candidate in the middle of a GOP election night party purely out of principal, and doesn’t shy away from calling out his boss at his own party. Although Orson Welles waltzes in and out of the screen as the script dictates, it feels like a homage to the author first and the director second, a love-letter to screenwriters and their craft.

The main issues that I had with this film are tenfold, yes, the performances and world-building are fantastic but the plot is messy, ill-structured and all over the place: almost unlike any of David Fincher’s movies before it. The flashback narrative doesn’t help especially when the main narrative of the movie is so weak and uninteresting in comparison, you’d rather they jettisoned framing device structure of the film that showed an elderly Mank in a room writing Citizen Kane entirely as the film slows down to a crawl and ruins its pacing when it stops to catch up with the writer’s progress, like in Assassin’s Creed when you’re just getting into the interesting historical elements and you get pulled out of the animus to a more mundane present day setting that is not what you bought the game for. But in how the film is framed, with Mank gaining inspiration for Citizen Kane through various events in the 1930s, you can’t help but feel like in parts David Fincher wanted to do a remake of the film originally, as there are so many moments that are instantly familiar from the film it’s a straight-up copy in parts, more than just a simple homage.

In short, I respected the film more than I liked it. It’s clearly a passion project from David Fincher. I just wish that the film had earned its payoff more, it feels like it’s mostly invested in set-up for a greater revelation that never really comes, it ends with a whimper rather than a bang and its pace drops to a crawl by the end, I was just happy for the film to be over. That’s not been the case with any of Fincher’s films that I’ve seen before, sans maybe Alien 3, and the result is hurt by its runtime, which feels much too short to tell everything that it's trying to tell. As heavily flawed as this film is I feel a lot of its issues would be fixed by giving it more room to breathe: I would have absolutely loved to have seen a 3-hour version of Mank that got The Irishman treatement.

Mank is currently available to stream on Netflix internationally. It is also available to watch, if you can do so safely, in select cinemas.

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