Review by Sean Boelman
Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is hailed by many as the pinnacle of cinema, so it will come as no surprise that David Fincher’s biopic Mank, about the writing of the film, is about as self-congratulatory as they come. Gorgeous in pretty much every way but surprisingly flat, Fincher’s movie is perfect for those enamored with the ways of Old Hollywood, but those who have a more cynical view of the past may find themselves frustrated.
The film tells the story of the origins of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s script for Citizen Kane, spanning two time periods: his writing of the screenplay and his relationship with media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who inspired the story. Jack Fincher’s script should be praised for having a precise level of detail with which even some of the most seasoned cinephiles may be unfamiliar, but as is said in the movie, almost everyone in America knows who Citizen Kane is actually about.
One of the more frustrating things about the film is that it pulls a disappointing amount of punches. Citizen Kane offers a pretty harsh indictment of the media mogul Hearst, and while this movie explores the contention that formed between him and Mankiewicz, it feels like more should have been done to condemn Hearst’s ethics (although there is one clunky monologue towards the end that does so).
Instead, the film gets caught up in the glamour of the cinema, and as a love letter to a revolutionary movie, it works well. Obviously, the film is going to work better for those who already have an appreciation of Citizen Kane, and may not even be understandable to those who haven’t seen it, but there is enough wit here to appeal to even the most passive of cinephiles.
The elder Fincher’s script creates artificial movement through a flashback structure, jumping between the ‘50s in which he wrote the script and the ‘30s and ‘40s in which its inspiration occurred. Had the movie been presented in a more traditional linear format, it would have been dull, but thankfully, there’s still some life in it.
Gary Oldman’s lead performance is about as great as expected, but he doesn’t disappear in the role like he has in the past. Charles Dance and Amanda Seyfried are good as Hearst and Marion Davies, but they each only have a few really memorable moments. The undersung standout, though, is Tom Burke, who absolutely nails Welles.
The film also succeeds in every technical aspect. The black-and-white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt is phenomenal. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is excellent. The production design periodizes the movie brilliantly. Fincher puts a certain level of intense detail into the script into its execution, and the film is better for it.
Mank isn’t as groundbreaking of a biopic as Fincher’s last effort in the genre, but there is irresistible appeal to those who are fans of cinema. Even if it leaves something to be desired, it’s more than pretty enough to be worth a watch.
Mank streams on Netflix beginning December 4.