As a big fan of David Fincher, and someone who definitely understands and appreciates the cinematographic achievement of Citizen Kane, I was really curious to see how the combination of director and topic would pan out. I was very, very disappointed. I am very happy whenever I find a Netflix film that really breaks the Netflix norm, but Mank does it in the most uninspired of ways. Of course, it’s a clear Oscar bait, its cinematography is exquisite, and Gary Oldman’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. Still, I felt that Mank ended up being a clear case of a film that pursues its vision so stubbornly, that it does not at all care for its audience.
A Hollywood pat on the back
The film’s larger context is 1930s California – with all the inner workings of major film studios, business deals and politics. Very niche to begin with, and not all that interesting for 95% of filmgoers. Of course, Hollywood likes these warm and fuzzy reminiscences of the good old days and enjoys a self-absorbed pat on the back very much. But making a film solely about this, with no intrigue, no drama, and very little in the character development department makes very little sense. Other projects with a similar thematic approach take a completely different direction with regard to plot structure, pacing and ideas – look at Once Upon in Hollywood, for instance, where everything is slowly but steadily contextualised, and actually leads somewhere. Mank keeps dropping name after name, sometimes hilariously over-emphasising such moments in an effort to show us who’s who and what’s what. At one point it begins feeling like a Nordic saga from the Middle Ages, but even then, it lacks the refining element that actually gets you somewhere. It insists on introducing more and more elements, jumping back and forth in time every time to offer context that doesn’t necessarily provide more clarity, and keeps following the same model for just over two hours.
A waste of talent
I know Fincher for his elaborate plots, flawless pacing and the sustained moments of suspense. He manages this even in more apparently mundane contexts, such as social media development in The Social Network. In Mank, not only is there none of that – but you can find quite the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I love slow-paced movies, but this film just doesn’t get anywhere. Mank is like that old man who sits next to you the entire time of a long bus drive and keeps telling you, with impeccable detail, a mundane event from his youth.
I sort of understand Fincher’s personal connection to the project – after all, the script was written by his late father, and he perhaps had this film in mind as one of his eventual projects for the longest time. But none of his filmmaking strengths come alive in here. Yes, the cinematography is impeccable, but I would expect it to be, for its budget. And 62-year-old Gary Oldman does an immaculate job portraying a 37-year-old troubled screenwriter, but that’s about it. Mank requires a sort of encyclopaedic knowledge of 1930s Hollywood, and a PhD in Orson Welles’ filmmaking in order to really make the most of it. I will end by comparing it with a recent project that shares quite a few similarities: it’s a period piece, it’s in black and white, has a snail’s pace and is a very personal project of the director. I am talking about the excellent Roma by Alfonso Cuaron. But in that case, the film attracts rather than repels the audience and manages to build rapport with them through its structure and dramatic moments, rather than pushing further and further into an endless tirade of American filmmakers, business people and politicians.