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Film Review: David Fincher’s Perfectionism Makes ‘Mank’ a True Technical Achievement

MANK (2020) Courtesy of Netflix
MANK (2020) David Fincher’s MANK is a scathing social critique of 1930s Hollywood through the eyes of alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles (Tom Burke).

Bringing the craftsmanship of David Fincher to Old Hollywood is a match made in cinematic heaven. While Fincher is thought of as a cutting-edge filmmaker (and he is), a number of his movies have been set in the past. With Mank, this is not just one of his most overt period pieces, it’s a wild technical achievement. With all of the aesthetics and style of a 1940s era Hollywood production, Mank really is one of a kind. While this alone would make it just a well done gimmick, it’s also a wholly captivating look at the era, as well as a subtle satire, to boot. Throw in a timely political subplot and this Netflix release is another crowning achievement for 2020.

What separates Mank from Fincher’s other works, in part, is his father Jack Fincher‘s screenplay. His dad spent a life in journalism and brings that eye for realism to his long-gestating script. It’s a shame that he didn’t live to see his son realize his vision, but what a vision it is. The story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, as well as Orson Welles, and in particular, the making of Citizen Kane, could have wound up with a stodgy biopic or period piece. Instead, this is a vibrant throwback, bringing together the old and the new.

Being released by Netflix is actually a fairly perfect home for the flick. Why? Well, if we’re all being honest with each other, this is somewhat of a niche offering. Fincher doesn’t make cheap films, so Mank almost certainly cost a pretty penny. Being put out into theaters could have easily resulted in this one flopping, dinging its awards chances. By streaming, it’ll reach way more people, potentially gaining some classic film converts in the process.

“Mank” (2020) Courtesy of Netflix

In broad strokes, the movie follows alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) in 1930s Hollywood as he races to finish the script for Citizen Kane. The scribe looks barely able to function, but is employed by young filmmaker Orson Welles (Tom Burke), under supervision by Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), to churn out pages. While typing, he reflects back on more of his glory days, especially while seeing William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) team up to take down the California Gubernatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair

As Mank works on the screenplay, he sees the politics of Hollywood get down and dirty with him and Welles. Reflecting how Sinclair was targeted by the powers that be, so too are they. A war brews with Hearst, in particular, which threatens a deep friendship that’s grown between Mank and Heart’s lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). We all know the classic that will result from this work, but the battles between all parties, especially once Mank and Welles argue over credit, is one that’s fascinating to witness.

“Mank” (2020) Courtesy of Netflix

The entire cast is pitch-perfect here, though Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried particularly stand out. The former is in essentially every scene, while the latter doesn’t just steal all of her scenes in a plum supporting roll, she winds up best in show. Oldman has long had a history of disappearing into his roles. Look no further than The Contender, Darkest Hour, and more for evidence of this. Here, we just have another example. He may look a bit old to play Herman Mankiewicz, but Mank lived hard, so it fits. As for Seyfried, she’s such a spark plug here, bringing added life to all of her scenes. Both embrace the old school acting style and dialogue delivery here, that’s for sure. Supporting players like Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, and more all shine in small parts, but Oldman and Seyfried leave the biggest impressions.

David Fincher once again puts forth flawless directorial work. Taking his father Jack Fincher’s script, he dives deep into 1930s Hollywood. For all the money, it looks like something from the 30s or 40s. Plus, the two Finchers have teamed up to craft something that truly appears to be one of the most accurate portrayals of the time. There were so many ways that this could have been stuffy or bland, but Fincher avoids nearly all of them. There’s humor, wit, social commentary, and a sense that anything is possible, despite it all being from the historical record. On that front, it’s as impressive as anything he’s ever done.

Surprising nobody, this is a technical wonder. It goes beyond achieving a look and sound that apes the old days. Not just content to have the sound be in mono and the digital production simulate film changeovers with cigarette burns on the screen, Fincher makes it “feel” like an archive. At the same time, there’s a modern aspect here too, not in a nostalgic way, but as a critical eye. Especially with the fake news subplot, that shines through. It goes without saying that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross contribute a perfect score for a Fincher flick, but this is really above and beyond. From top to bottom, the tech work is flawless, including the cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, the costume design by Trish Summerville, and the editing by Kirk Baxter. Messerschmidt deserves a ton of credit for the look of the film, especially, while Baxter allows perfect pacing, a hallmark of Fincher’s oeuvre.

Mank (2020) – Courtesy of Netflix

Awards voters should flock from this one. Look for Mank to potentially have double-digit nominations at the Oscars. Academy members will take this across the board. Without question, Best Picture, Best Director (for Fincher), Best Actor (for Oldman), Best Supporting Actress (for Seyfried), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score seem like nominations. Then, there’s Best Original Screenplay (for Fincher), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects, which certainly are possible. It won’t take much for Mank to lead the Academy Award, nomination-wise. A movie and movies? Voters are going to fall over themselves to honor this one. In particular, this could be the one to finally give Fincher his Oscar for Director.

Mank is only dinged slightly by being the sort of specific work that could seem merely like an exercise to some. It’s not, but it’s easy to understand someone finding it more of an experiment and hard to enjoy. I wasn’t in that boat, but some will feel that way. Overall though, it’s a stunningly good achievement from one of our best directors. Oscar will go for it in a major way, but anyone with Netflix who appreciates Old Hollywood needs to check this one out!

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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