Editor’s notes: Enjoy this spoiler-free review of Mank, David Fincher’s first Netflix feature that leads at the Golden Globes with six nominations. The Golden Globes will take place on 1st of March, 2:00 AM MET. It is also expected to draw huge attention when the Oscar nominations are announced on March 15, 2021.
Netflix has never shied away from pushing boundaries and taking new leaps. This ranges from digitalizing film content over the internet to promoting diversity and inclusion, down to their plan to release an original movie every week in 2021. Everything about the company has oozed ingenuity. Such disruptive initiatives can be found with David Fincher, whose credits include the groundbreaking Fight Club, the bewitching thriller, Gone Girl and unarguably the most significant film of the last decade, The Social Network.
After helming a number of television shows for the streaming service—guiding House of Cards to a global success, and niche offerings like Mindhunter, and Love Death + Robots to cult acclaim status—he released his first Netflix feature film, which cinephiles have eagerly anticipated due to its connection to a beloved classic.
Mank is a semi-biographical film, directed by David Fincher, retelling the story of the infamous writer behind Citizen Kane. It depicts the behind-the-scenes drama and inspiration that moulded the scriptwriting process that would go on to birth one of the greatest movies ever, as generally accepted by film enthusiasts.
Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, is the titular character, who is fondly called Mank by his colleagues. He has been commissioned by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to develop a screenplay which will serve as Welles’ Hollywood debut feature film, after Welles’ career in stage directing. However, Mank is not your average Hollywood individual. He is an outspoken person who is filled with wit, creative talent, and possesses a general flair for words. He does not shy away from being the most hated (or most loved) person in a gathering, depending on who is on the receiving end of his jokes and foul remarks. It is hard not to notice him—even in a room full of more lavishly dressed people.
Behind this bag of talents is a man who suffers from huge alcohol dependency and a gambling addiction. This addiction has left him in the red. He has to complete this screenplay under close supervision of a secretary, played by Lily Collins, and a maid (Monika Gossmann), who both have the exhausting task of keeping him sober during this period in a strictly dry house.
The film runs for over 120 minutes and utilizes a back and forth format in its storytelling. This is similar to its inspiration Citizen Kane, which is told in both present day scenes and frequent flashbacks to past events that inspire present day actions, most importantly, Mank’s story choice, which is drawn from his past relationship with the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Still drawing heavy inspiration from Citizen Kane and its era, Mank was boldly shot in black and white. This might discourage younger viewers—who mostly fill Netflix’s demography—from having a second look when the short 15-30 second preview comes up on their profile. It is a beautiful movie to watch, as it boasts magnificent cinematographic efforts that capture the beauty of this period, most especially, the empty spaces and countryside scenery where Mank finds himself.
Despite this persistent connection to the early era of cinema, its themes still resonate today. The director depicts the budding ‘fake news’ culture as a social menace in the 40s, which, at the same time, speaks against the prevalence of misinformation happening today. With Mank, Fincher explores the birthplace of ‘fake news’, whereby the electorates were manipulated by RKO, one of the ‘big five’ in this period.
They swayed the minds of the populace into voting for a particular candidate by producing propaganda media stories and reports, an idea suggested by Mank’s witty brain as he seeks a quick response during a conversation with his RKO boss, telling him that if they (as a studio) can sell the public on fiction, why not try it out with real life. His boss takes it as a sound idea, and decides that by bending the facts, they can win the people over to vote for their preferred (RKO-backed) candidate.
Consequently, it raises these questions: how far should public figures go in order to influence public choices? Should the use of wealth make the larger public crave the same wishes as the wealthy?
Casual film lovers might struggle with the film’s length, most especially if they have no knowledge of its inspiration, Citizen Kane, which went on to win the best screenplay after its release in 1941. Nevertheless, Mank’s antics in the flashback sequences keep the movie going. As much as they entertain viewers, they also amuse his wife, ‘Poor Sarah’ (Tuppence Middleton), as she is fondly called due to the shenanigans that she puts up with. At some point in the movie, Mank asks her why she has remained with him after his countless ups and downs. She replies, explaining that his numerous capers have kept her entertained throughout their marriage, and thus explains her unending support and love for him.
Fincher was able to squeeze out good performances from his cast, mixed with very unfamiliar faces and a number of overlooked Hollywood stars. They all combine to give noteworthy acting performances, with Amanda Seyfried deserving special mention for her portrayal of a naive Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst’s younger lover.
This was a passion project for David Fincher, who brought this story to life from a script written by his father, Jack Fincher, who had a relationship with Mank years ago. The project went through a long process of rejections, mostly due to studios’ lack of interest in funding a black and white movie, until Netflix came along and brought it to our small screens.
David Fincher, with this movie shot in an old Hollywood style, uses this medium to speak against the modern-day studios. He has often mentioned how difficult it is to get a story made in the industry if it does not guarantee a truckload of returns, such as money and awards, which he comically coined as the “spandex summer” for blockbusters and “affliction winter” for Oscar bait movies.
Debuting on Netflix in November, the film also serves as a way to express his defiance towards the industry that makes it difficult for filmmakers to artistically express their vision without constant interference.
Fincher has believed in this story for a long time. Netflix, popularly known for the creative freedom it grants to its collaborators, has provided him with the needed platform, and the outcome feels like a match made in a time machine. This also provides Netflix with ammunition to use against critics who view the platform as anti-cinema.
Interestingly, there is a multiyear contract between Netflix and Fincher. I can only hope for more daring and entertaining results of rebelliousness, whereby both parties continuously go against ‘standard’ industry practices, and with this union, ‘stay-at-home’ viewers can look forward to a prospective array of content to be birthed by this radical relationship between an orthodox hands-on filmmaker and a highly innovative media company.
- The film nabbed Golden globes nominations in the following categories: best picture, director, lead actor for Gary Oldman, supporting actress for Amanda Seyfried, best screenplay for Jack Fincher and original score for Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.
- Golden scene: this is a scene I find hilarious than it should be which makes it a perfect scene for me. When Marion (Amanda Seyfried) leaves RKO studio premises, Mank tries to convince her to help him influence RKO boss (Arliss Howard) over a certain issue. First, she says, “you know I don’t lie” in a really dramatic fashion. Then, she finally agrees, and hints that something else hinders her from helping him out, which also sounds like a huge thing. Mank, as well as viewers are curious to know what this thing is. He pokes her for an answer, which she replies, “my exit”, “I already made my exit.” This speaks a lot about Hollywood diva behaviour which Amanda Seyfried’s timing and delivery do justice.
- It is highly advisable to watch Citizen Kane to fully enjoy Mank and the minor details it carries. Note, I said to “fully enjoy” and not “fully understand”.
‘Mank’ is rated R for some language.
Mank premiered in December 2020 and is currently showing on Netflix worldwide.