✰✰✰✰½ (out of five)
Synopsis: 1930s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish "Citizen Kane."
Review: Famed film critic Pauline Kael once said, "'Citizen Kane' is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher." And yet, she is often credited with the discrediting of boy wonder Orson Welles as the true master of that classic film of rise and fall. She wrote the lengthy essay titled "Raising Kane," a look at the contributions of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and giving him the true credit for "Citizen Kane," questioning how much Welles truly contributed. Many Welles defenders and friends have railed Kael's writings for decades since it's 1971 publication.
It is here, you can say, David Fincher's latest film "Mank" was conceived. Originally a screenplay written by his father Jack, the younger Fincher supposedly softened the anti-Welles blow. But what makes this film defining to and very much part of the brash director's repertoire is the conversation it creates. The debate rages on among film aficionados, cinephiles and movie buffs of the disputed greatest American film of all time and who was the true visionary. Fincher's final product swings clearly towards the screenwriter camp with just enough left open to interpretation. More so, the flames are stoked and the debate reignites. Since Kael's essay, "Citizen Kane" has gained notoriety as an innovative film of movie-making techniques pioneered by Welles and his crew. Almost like fine dining: who gets the credit for the masterpiece entree: the chef who made it or the owner who found the chef? Things have cooled on the debate, especially when the American Film Institute named "Kane" as the #1 American film of all-time. So the status quo establishment was content with that.
Enter David Fincher, whose films have rattled the cages of the very ones in control of the moviemaking process. Fincher seems to live vicariously through the characters of "Mank," thumbing his nose at the elites who influence the studios, the media and politics. And with the very release of the film, the debate over credit for "Citizen Kane" starts up again. Fincher has poked the beehive. While others battle over who gets the credit, Fincher just watches.
But look at his credits. His film career started battling the studio over "Alien 3." he swore he'd rather get colon cancer than direct another movie after that experience. But when "Se7en" came across his plate, he twisted the seemingly bland buddy cop setup into something visceral that is still influencing and talked about today. The entire basis of "Fight Club" is tearing down a social structure spoiled with riches it doesn't need and literally imploding the ivory towers of glass. "Zodiac" is a real-life dramatization of the disputed claims of a newspaper cartoonist obsessed with an individual he believes to be the Zodiac killer in San Francisco, a serial murderer who wants to upend the quaint innocence of American normalcy. And do I even need to go in-depth with ":The Social Network"? Needless to say, Fincher himself is obsessed with the very notice of crashing the system. And Fincher does love thumbing his nose at them. He has the ability to. Cause his films are that damn good. As mentioned previously, for this reason, "Mank" fits right into his filmography as much as the others. The main character is welcomed into the inner sanctum of the powerful and influential, only to use their structure against them because he's never part of the inner most circle: he's still, in a way, on the outside looking in. Fincher has had award nominations aplenty while challenging the system that permits him to create such works, with the society of Hollywood not awarding much to such a rebel.
Did I mention 'living vicariously' yet?
Gary Oldman's portrayal as Herman Mankiewicz is delightful. He feels comfortable playing a reforming screwup whose poetic ability to craft the smoothest of lyrical dialogue--for his characters and himself--radiates off the screen. Charles Dance (the last person from "Alien 3" I could've predicted reuniting with Fincher, not that I am complaining) is a constant, almost silent antagonistic puppet master as publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst who is frienemy to Mank (Mankiewicz used what he knew of Hearst as a basis for outlining the character of Kane and his story arc, much to the media magnate's disdain). But Amanda Seyfried has a bubbly, effervescent quality as mid-grade actress and Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, who took an instant liking to Mank. Seyfried has a classic movie star glamour to her, both in looks and abilities. She is expertly cast as someone looking to claim those qualities in a system casting her aside. Its amazing the growth she has had as an actress, going from a one-note punchline in "Mean Girls" to such a nuanced role as Davies.
In a weird twist of meta irony, you have to question: what drives "Mank" more--the Jack Fincher screenplay or the David Fincher direction? Is this the father's film or the son's? Much like the context its covering, "Mank" feels more like a FIncher film, if you ask me. The issue is the screenplay. It has its quirks and tries to be a wink-wink, tongue in cheek self-referential structure akin to "Citizen Kane." And I am sure David wanted to honor his father with getting this work made with as little amendments as possible. But some alterations were still needed, which is what a director should have say over.
The political conversation of the California gubernatorial race is also distracting. I understand the need for its inclusion, but it dominates too muich of the scope and context of "Mank."
So, again, will the debate end with "Mank" on who deserves credit for "Citizen Kane" end with a winner or continue as a stalemate? If David Fincher had the choice, he'll just keep fanning the dying embers to keep the fire going, regardless if he's still seated at the table or not.