Mank: David Fincher's Beautiful Mess
David Fincher has long been one of those fascinating directors to watch as they continue along the course of their career. From the very beginning of his feature film career with his studio-choked "Alien" sequel and smaller hits like "Fight Club" and "Seven," to his major Oscar-nominated work that's included "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network," his talent behind the camera has always been on full display. Even when he has a small misstep, like with his recent "Gone Girl," there remains no doubt of his skill. Now he returns with what can easily be considered one of his most ambitious films to date: "Mank," a period piece revolving around legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
The film follows Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), known as "Mank" to his friends, in a couple of different time periods. We first meet him in 1940, where he has recently had a car accident and is about to begin work on the screenplay for his collaboration with Orson Welles, a film that would go on to become known as "Citizen Kane." Throughout this, we jump back to the early-to-late 30s to explore his early days at MGM, his relationships with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and his brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), as well as newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion (Amanda Seyfried). We quickly find that his life, which seems to include being inebriated most of the time, is quite the bizarre and hectic puzzle, but one that would eventually result in what many consider the greatest film of all time.
Right off the bat, Fincher and co. dazzle your eyes with the film's vivid aesthetics, drawing you in with its sumptuous black & white photography (complete with "cigarette burns" for the reel changes), stunning production design, and remarkable costumes, all of which give you the amazing feeling of watching a period piece from the period setting. Suffice it to say that, on a technical level, the film is top-notch, including Fincher's sure-handed direction, which presents a heavily-detailed, rich backdrop for the frantic narrative and its multitude of charismatic characters.
Speaking of which, there is certainly no shortage of charisma in Gary Oldman's performance. Though a large part of it is, as mentioned, him having imbibed too much, he nonetheless turns Mank into a captivating character to watch as he goes about trying to finish his work in the present and deals with other situations in the past. Likewise, Amanda Seyfried is another sparkling standout as Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, a friend of Mank's who seems to just drift along with the narrative.
Indeed, it's hard to find a single fault in the gorgeous tableaux of visuals that "Mank" presents, or the intriguing performances it contains. However, when it comes to the screenplay from Jack Fincher (father of David Fincher), it's a slightly different matter. What we get in terms of narrative is a story that's a little too all over the place in what it wants to encompass. Fincher wanted to make a film about the writing of "Citizen Kane" and the aftermath, Mank's tumultuous relationships with Hollywood execs, his brother, his wife, friends, and other important figures, and as a result, the film ends up being just a little too thin as it tries to include so much.
In fact, it would be fair to say that it's a bit of a mess, though not in an entirely bad way. There's certainly a lot of variety in terms of characters, but ultimately, a little more focus would've done the film a lot of good. Perhaps if it had stayed more on course in telling the story of writing "Citizen Kane," and only briefly flashing back to how he came to want to tell the shadow tale of a tycoon (i.e. eliminating the more superfluous portions), the film would've been more defined instead of a hodgepodge of scenes (or, as one of his colleagues describes his writing, "A hodgepodge of talky episodes. A collection of fragments that leap around in time..."). Now this could've been Fincher giving the audience a wink and not caring, or perhaps he really thought this was the best way to try and get his story across (as Mank points out: "The narrative is... not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit."). Regardless of intention, the colleague's description unfortunately ends up being rather apt.
Overall, David Fincher's "Mank" ends up being something of a beautiful mess, replete with visual splendor and solid performances, but lacking in a strong enough foundation to make it all worthwhile. That said, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising at all to still see it do quite well at the Oscars, particularly when it comes to Director, Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume Design. In fact, after seeing how deftly he displays his craft here, it would appear to be Fincher's to lose (third time's the charm?). If it should happen, it'll just be a slight shame that it wasn't for one of his more memorable works.
Streaming on Netflix starting tomorrow.
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