Audacity is a feature that director David Fincher has never lacked. Even his now-disavowed debut, Alien 3, which marked the director’s jump from music video maestro to the world of film, is an audacious reimagining of Ellen Ripley’s story. Even with the studio interference that eventually led to the film’s disownment, you can see the seeds of the filmmaker he would become sprouting from his fertile creative grounds.
And everything he’s done since has only solidified his stance as one of the most creative directors working today. In the near 30 years of his career as a filmmaker, he’s amassed a body of work that stands tall against the legends of the field, a status, it’s safe to say, that he’s achieved for himself.
Which makes his six year absence from the film world something of a disappointment. Sure, we weren’t living entirely in a Fincherless era. Netflix’s Mindhunter, which he created, produced, and for which he directed seven episodes, gave us plenty of that Fincher grit and audacity to enjoy over the past few years, but the lack of new movies from the director since 2014’s Gone Girl has been, well, disappointing.
And now the drought is over. Continuing his relationship with Netflix, which began with House of Cards and continued with Mindhunter, Fincher brings us his latest film, the decades-in-the-making passion project, Mank. Written decades ago by the director’s father, journalist and writer Jack Fincher, Mank is the perfect project for the notoriously fickle director’s creative might. It is, perhaps, the most Fincherian of Fincher’s films, and one which offers his fans heavy doses of the director’s stylized portraits.
It is also, in the grand tradition of passion projects, one of the director’s most self-indulgent, masturbatory works. Depending on where you fall on the Fincher scale, that’s either great news or not great news. Ultimately, however, Fincher doesn’t care what you think of him or his film. Mank is so very clearly a film made for an audience of one, and the fact that he’s released it tells us all we need to know about what he thinks of it.
Gary OIdman stars as the titular Mank, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the legendary Golden Age screenwriter best known for Citizen Kane. The film follows the writer, whose fortunes and failures rose and fell like the tides over his decades in Hollywood, as he sets out to write what would one day become known as the greatest movie ever made, interspersing those travails with an exploration of Old Hollywood’s political and business machinations.
Mank offers Fincher the kind of creative playground in which the director does so well, giving him the ability to flex his awe-inspiring technical prowess. Whatever else you might think of the film, it’s difficult not to bask in the filmmaker’s attention to technical details, which extends so far beyond just the black and white presentation. The film itself looks old, its image holding that slightly grainy quality of a remastered classic. Even included are the now incredibly old fashioned “cigarette burns”—a concept most people my age didn’t notice until Fincher pointed them out in Fight Club—which gives Mank an even deeper classic film feeling.
The pains Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (who previously worked with Fincher on Mindhunter) took to make Mank look as period accurate as possible are readily apparent. From the use of matte paintings to the lighting itself, the film looks like it could have been resurrected from the archives of classic studio. Even the film’s performances reflect a certain degree of the Golden Age style, with some over-emoting and melodramatics worked in for an additional touch.
Beautiful as the film is too look at, it’s made more impressive by the towering performances of its cast. As a director, Fincher is notoriously fickle and precise, often shooting scenes upwards of 100 times to make sure that every angle, every shot, every note is pitch perfect. That’s not an easy job for a performer to have, but the result is a series of performances that are among the best its cast has ever produced.
Oldman seems a shoe-in for a Best Actor nod, bringing the legendary screenwriter back to life with a nuanced performance befitting an actor of his talents. Mank himself was a complicated man, willing to go head to head against powerful studio and political bosses not just because he was right, but because there was a joy in speaking truth to power. This didn’t always win the writer many friends in the long term, but he never really gave much of a fuck. Oldman embodies that dynamic beautifully, and a snub for a nomination would be a grievous error.
So too with Amanda Seyfried, who portrays legendary silent film star Marion Davies, long time mistress of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst (portrayed in Mank by Charles Dance), the primary inspiration for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Mank and Marion had a close friendship over the years, which gave the writer an inside look at the Hearst empire prior to writing his best screenplay. Covered by flashbacks in Mank, Seyfried brings a starlet’s shine to Fincher’s film, and delivers a career best performance in the process.
Great as all this is, it’s difficult to pin a wider audience on Mank. Cinephiles will, no doubt, adore the look and feel of the film, and Jack Fincher’s screenplay goes a long way towards righting the wrongs inflicted on the writer (like Orson Welles taking credit for the screenplay) during his career. But it’s hard to see audiences at large willing to allow themselves a connection to this incredibly niche story and characters.
But, as stated, the only audience that matters for Mank is Fincher himself. And his glee at the film is palpable. For Fincher, this is a project 23 years in the making—it was originally set to film in the 90s with Kevin Spacey attached to star, but Polygram pulled out of the film over Fincher’s insistence on black and white—and, for him at least, the wait was more than worth it. If Old Hollywood style and the Fincherian aesthetic are things you enjoy, you’re almost certainly going to be along for the ride. Anyone else may do best not to care and to leave Fincher to his toys.
Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.