Mank review: Fincher’s new Netflix original movie is necessary cinema

MANK (2020)Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.NETFLIX
MANK (2020)Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.NETFLIX /

One of the best movies of 2020, David Fincher’s Mank, drops on Netflix on Dec. 4

Is Mank going to be worth the watch when it drops on Netflix next month?

I didn’t exactly enjoy watching Citizen Kane. Long upheld as the definitive, untouchable paragon of the art of film, the 1941 movie contains timeless characters, indelible images arising from its innovative grasp on technique, and a hard-boiled—yet anachronistic—cynicism that has aged like fine wine, to be sure.

But in the year of our lord 2020, Kane is not what I would initially point to as the most complete encapsulation of American values—nor indeed the most enrapturing journey of a tragic figure—that simplistic superlatives would have you believe. In fact, a lot of the gripes I harbor with Kane are more elaborately put in critic Pauline Kael’s book-long essay “Raising Kane.”

You would do well to read said essay before watching Mank, Netflix’s hotly anticipated new movie from David Fincher (from a script by his late father Jack), which arrives on the streaming service on Dec. 4.

You would also (obviously) do well to watch Citizen Kane before going into Mank. In spite of my own mixed feelings regarding Kane, both media provided ample context for Mank and helped calcify my own immensely pleasurable viewing experience of David Fincher’s most opulent joint this side of Benjamin Button. Mank contains stunning visuals, impressive use of a brilliantly cast ensemble, and a most compelling story (based on a much-contested reality) to detail a cinephile fever dream that is stylized, acerbic, and dizzyingly astounding.

What is Mank about?

The titular Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz, co-screenwriter of Orson Welles’s directorial debut Citizen Kane, and the movie pivots between Herman’s two-month-long Kane writing sabbatical and flashbacks to his interactions with various icons from the Depression-era film industry. Mank, a bloviating and remarkable Gary Oldman, is a newspaper journalist cum screenwriter who compensates for his helpless addictions to gambling and drinking with the ability to brandish a pen with a near-unrivaled freshness and wit.

After a dry spell (at work, though certainly not at the watering hole), Mank is proffered by radio drama wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to (help) write the 20-something’s barnstorming entrance into Hollywood.

At Mank’s side, come hell or high water, are his trusty wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) and his powerful one-percent drinking friends: William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his notably younger sweetie Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). At work, Mank deals with producers Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), as well as devoted brother and fellow screenwriter Joe (Tom Pelphrey). Not a single member of the supporting cast is out of place here, as they believably depict the seedy machinations of oldie sausage-making and dutifully represent various aspects of Mank’s life.

Why you need to watch Mank

Fincher enlists the talents of past collaborators and a confident crew to help his incredibly focused vision come to life. The digital cinematography, shot in black and white by Mindhunter DP Erik Messerschmidt, swoons with lush, romantic chiaroscuro in every frame, all the more elevated by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s gorgeous score that, via a road rarely traveled by Nine Inch Nails, primarily uses billowing string orchestrations.

Editor Erik Baxter also comes in clutch, once again compiling the best of the alleged hundreds of takes from set, as well as adding neat visual effects that cleverly commit to the old school movie hall experience few of us will get with Mank.

It suffices to say that Mank wouldn’t exist without traditional moviegoing, even if Mank must. That sort of dissonance finds a simpatico companion in the busy plot of the film, which ascends beyond the “screenwriter credit dilemma” at the crux of Mank’s elevator pitch toward a broader portrait of ‘30s California politics, glaring wealth disparity, and the hierarchical star system as seen through the eyes of its court jester. Although it’s nostalgic and overflowing with lavish admiration, Singin’ in the Rain this is not.

As is typical with Fincher’s other works, Mank is cool, sharp, and frequently dour—it jumps from the thrilling rat-tat-tat of screenwriters’ extemporaneous pitches to heated attempts of scripticide “so as not to offend the wrong person.”

Fincher’s intentions in conducting this ode to cinema of yore treads subjective territory by default—analyses of the story of Kane’s origins range in terms of opinion and historical authenticity (re: Kael). Rather than reckoning with the consequences of the release and subsequent accolades garnered from such a complicated movie, Mank fully attempts to engrain itself in the idiosyncratic attitudes, political and casual alike, of Kane’s creators and the souls they leave behind in their wake. In doing so, Mank grippingly sheds light on our own perceptions of truth, wondering whether we can ever take the words and actions of people in the business of dream fabrication at face value.

Mank is nothing less than a dream come true for people like yours truly who love to engage with film history—a multifaceted, dark portrayal of the harsh realities that leech the underbelly of Hollywood. While its release in few theaters is far from ideal, its upcoming visibility on the most popular streaming service in the nation will allow people the opportunity to become engrossed in such a hyper-specific environment from the comfort of their own homes, an opportunity on which you should promptly jump.

Mank ranks in the top films of 2020, and deservedly so: it is a mature, fascinating, and cerebral movie that, like the year itself, will be sure to knock you on your heels.

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