"Mank" (2020)- Movie Review

Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jack Fincher
 Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins

‘Filmmaking at its Finest’

When discussing the greatest movies ever made, a conversation is incomplete without “Citizen Kane”. Ever since Orson Welles’ feature hit theaters nearly 80 years ago, the film has stood the test of time as a classic. Given its prestigious reputation, movie-buffs have long wondered how the project came into fruition. Due to limitations, however, the making behind “Citizen Kane” has never been depicted on film. It is not easy to reintroduce a 1941 black-and-white classic to modern audiences. After all, some films are so flawless that they are better left untouched. Thus, the story behind the production of “Citizen Kane” remains an unexplored mystery.

Now, David Fincher brings the behind-the-scenes story to the big-screen for the first time in his latest film “Mank”. An ambitious, nostalgic and sweeping period piece, it offers a fascinating peek at the making of a masterpiece. With his eleventh feature, director David Fincher has crafted a glorious homage to the Old Hollywood studio system. Packed with sumptuous production values, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is one of the best movies of the year. Although “Mank” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and features constant time jumps that may confuse certain movie-goers. Nonetheless, it offers old-fashioned entertainment that fans of “Citizen Kane” won’t be able to resist.

Set in 1930s Los Angeles, “Mank” follows the life of a narcissistic screenwriter that struggles to achieve recognition. Gary Oldman stars in the lead role as Herman Mankiewickz, an ailing screenwriter with self-destructive habits. Herman yearns to be recognized for his work, but is rejected by his peers due to his alcoholism. However, Herman’s life forever changes when he is hired by director Orson Welles to cowrite the screenplay for “Citizen Kane”. As Herman finishes the script, he becomes embroiled in a controversial dispute over credit.

Director David Fincher is a newcomer to old-fashioned biopics. Fincher is an award-winning auteur that is best known for his frightening psychological thrillers (ex. 1995’s “Se7en”). “Mank”, however, marks his first period piece and foray into a long forgotten time in film history. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to recreate Hollywood’s Golden Era on the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating black-and-white cinematography, Fincher draws viewers into the world of a booze-addled screenwriter that seeks recognition in 1930s Hollywood. Fincher’s decision to shoot the film using deep-focus photography is risky, but it works tremendously. Fincher successfully employs deep-focus to evoke the visual style of “Citizen Kane”. Working alongside cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Fincher creates a breathtaking film in which each frame is a spectacular feast for the eyes. Fincher excels at recreating the Golden Age of Hollywood, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If stories of acclaimed screenwriters do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Mank”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most mesmerizing production-values that you’ll ever see in a period piece. The production sets, period costumes and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive cinematic experience. It is not easy to recreate the 1930s era, but Fincher pulls it off effectively. Assisted by production-designer Donald Graham Burt, Fincher meticulously employs extravagant sets to transport viewers into the 1930s. Whether it is the spartan ranch or exquisite Hearst Castle mansion, the impressively designed sets emulate the era. Moreover, the musical score is also worth lauding. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is highly effective. It gives the film a warm and energetic atmosphere. Through awe-inspiring production-values, Fincher makes viewers feel as if they’re watching a 1930s film.

Another praiseworthy element of “Mank” is the screenplay. Jack Fincher’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to subvert the expectations of viewers by telling the story in a non-linear structure. In Hollywood, most classic films follow a conventional three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the cinematic experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Mank”. In a technique that evokes “Citizen Kane”, Fincher tells the story using a non-linear structure. The film smoothly switches back and forth between two distinct timelines: Herman working on his screenplay in 1941 and his memories of the film industry. Through this ingenious non-linear structure, Fincher creates an honorable homage to Orson Welles’ movie. Non-linear storytelling is a tricky technique to employ in a biopic, but it works extremely well in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Fincher keeps viewers absorbed in a cinematic world.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast. In an award-worthy ensemble, every star gets their chance to shine.

Gary Oldman delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Herman Mankiewicz. Following his Oscar-winning turn in “Darkest Hour”, Oldman has proven to be a dedicated actor with a flair for playing historical figures. With “Mank”, Oldman returns to familiar territory in a role that appears to be tailor-made for him. It is not easy to portray a preeminent screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood. However, Oldman pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he embodies the commitment, recklessness and self-absorption of the renowned screenwriter that contributed towards Cinema. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the greatest actors working today.

The supporting cast is stellar and also worthy of recognition. Amanda Seyfried is astonishing and imbues shades of humanity into the legendary actress Marion Davies. Lily Collins is sensational and captures the restricted societal roles of 1930s housemaids as Herman’s secretary Rita Alexander. And finally, it is hard to not mention Charles Dance. As an intimidating businessman, he brings palpable tension to the movie.

Despite its unquestionable strengths, however, “Mank” isn’t quite the masterpiece that critics suggest. If there’s a minor downside to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Fincher’s decision to tell the story in non-linear fashion is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. Due to this faulty technique, there are times when the flashbacks of Mank’s past experiences are less engrossing than the present-day writing sequences. Moreover, the film’s scholarly themes may not interest everyone. The film is mainly targeted towards cinephiles that are fascinated by “Citizen Kane”. Viewers that haven’t seen Orson Welles’ classic may find it hard to follow the non-linear narrative, which constantly shifts back and forth in time. In order to fully appreciate the movie, movie-goers must be reasonably familiar with the history of Hollywood. Due to its academic subject, “Mank” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of “Citizen Kane” will definitely enjoy “Mank” and so will movie-goers seeking old-fashioned entertainment. A passionate love letter to Cinema, it celebrates the legacy of an influential film in cinematic history. One can only hope that this nostalgic tribute will motivate modern audiences to revisit the black-and-white classic that continues to inspire filmmakers till this day.

4/5 stars

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