David Fincher is one of today’s greatest filmmakers and producers. He is the genius that gave us the meticulously crafted masterpieces Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, all of which have become iconic for the art of cinema. Moreover, he was behind the creation of the American version of House of Cards, the political drama that used to be Netflix’s crown jewel, before it was given an embarrassed, rushed and lamentable ending as a reaction to the Kevin Spacey Affair. Fincher’s next venture was Mindhunter, which, although more low-key than his films, was a perfect feast for all who love his detailed and impactful storytelling. One can only hope that Netflix would give green light to its third season, even though its chances are tragically slim.

However, they did produce his latest film, Mank, which, to the regret of most Fincher fans, is not on the level of excellence as his previous movies. This is not to say that it is not worth watching. On the contrary, it is a remarkable achievement on several levels and is a decent film that deserves our attention. But it fails to deliver in some crucial respects and is unlikely to be given an elevated place in Fincher’s oeuvre.

Based on a script written in the 1990s by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher, its is about the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, the legendary 1941 film directed by and starring the young Orson Welles. We see how the writer, Herman Mankiewicz, nicknamed Mank, dictates his operatic script whilst recovering from a broken leg and indulging in his self-destructive habit of imbibing copious amounts of alcohol. Whilst he and his secretary are being pressured by Welles and others to finish the script on time, we are presented with flashbacks that tell the backstory of the inspiration behind Citizen Kane, the main hero of which is based on William Randolph Hearst, the rich and powerful publishing magnate. It transpires that Mank has an ax to grind with the American businessman, and is visited by several people who try to talk him out of writing the vengeful script, but to no avail.

One of Mank’s wonderful successes is the conjuring of the contrasting and exciting atmosphere of Hollywood of the 1930s. We are treated to good doses of Golden Age glamour, mostly in Hearst’s San Simeon castle, the grand halls of which are decorated with glittering lacquered furniture, fine Tiffany lamps and sumptuous haute couture gowns, filled with tempting female flesh. And we see glimpses of the ragged and worried workers, whose livelihoods are threatened and indeed taken away by the Depression.

Another remarkable aspect of this film is that it is made to look so much like a black and white film shot in the late thirties or early forties, that, were it transported back in time and shown in American cinemas during the Second World War, people would be unlikely to regard it as an anachronism, at least from aesthetic point of view. Every shot is a masterclass in expert composition and expressive lighting, echoing the innovative visuals of Citizen Kane, on their part influenced by the striking cinema of Weimar Germany. The whole film is given the subtle granulated texture and small imperfections characteristic for classic movies, and its finishing touch is the regular appearance of cue marks, the small black dots that flash in the right upper corner of the film frame, that used to indicate to projectionists that a particular reel of the film is approaching its end. Mank is a beautiful curiosity that reminds one how enjoyable and aesthetically rewarding old films can be.

The past Fincher films gave fruitful opportunities to great actors to shine and one expects the same level of craft and artistry, or even higher, from the cast of this new one. However, although there are some notable performances in Mank, on the whole, the acting seems average. Tom Pelphrey, who plays Mank’s brother, is among the exceptions and watching his scenes is pure pleasure, mainly because he has managed to adopt the very subtly exaggerated acting style of the thirties and forties. Amanda Seyfried, who plays Marion Davies, Hearst’s actress mistress, also claims the spotlight without effort. She is luminously beautiful and manages to communicate the hidden depths of her character with ease and elegance. William Randolph Hearst is portrayed quietly but powerfully by the authoritative Charles Dance, but he is given so little screen time that, although he makes the best of it, one is left with wanting more. The same applies to Lily Collins, who plays Mank’s secretary, and whose character seems to be there for purely mechanical purposes, providing exposition and opportunities for the reveal of parts of Mank’s personality.

And that character is the crucial one, for he is the engine of the whole film. For Mank to work, the character of Herman Mankiewicz has to work first. However, portrayed by Gary Oldman, Mank feels unconvincing. Of course, as Fincher is a genius filmmaker, so is Oldman a genius actor. But he doesn’t seem to be at his best in this film. To begin with, he is too old for the part. Oldman is in his sixties and, one has to say, looks his age, whilst the Mank we see in the film is in his late thirties and early forties. This is important, because Oldman’s incarnation of the great screenwriter seems as somebody at the twilight of his life who decides to plunge into alcoholism, whilst in reality Mank was gripped by this destructive vice in the prime of his life. The original casting choice for the film was Kevin Spacey who, although also in his sixties, looks much younger and perhaps would have been the better fit, safe for being regarded as an untouchable by his former colleagues.

Another problem is that Mank is drunk for most of the time of the film. Very quickly this becomes repetitive, then tedious, and finally boring. He has a long drunk monologue in the last act of the film which is supposed to be this very dramatic and powerful moment, but, being nothing the viewer hasn’t seen for the previous hour, it is a bit that one wants to finish faster so that the film itself would finally speed towards its ending. Moreover, Oldman’s drunk acting is not very convincing. Perhaps he too tried the somewhat exaggerated style of performance from the period, but not to great success. Furthermore, the abuse of drink is only one of the many bad aspects of Mank’s character, who is also a gambler, is very likely being unfaithful to his wife, and has an annoyingly supercilious attitude to almost everybody. And yet, we are constantly told we should love him despite all his faults, just like his poor wife who can’t stop asking herself why she is with him. Well, we neither love nor really care about Mank. And this prevents us from loving and caring about the film.

But most of the problems with the protagonist of Mank, as with all the other characters, have their origin not in the performances of the cast or in Fincher’s direction, but in the script itself. Hitchcock famously said that “[t]o make a great film you need three things: the script, the script and the script”. It is sad that a screenplay about the writing of a genius script is not genius itself. Moreover, the fact that it was written by Fincher’s late father and that it certainly has significant sentimental value for the director makes criticising it somewhat uncomfortable. However, it was produced by a powerful team and the film is a serious contender for the awards season, therefore it has to be commented upon.

As mentioned above, it is unfair to most members of the cast. Most of the actors are given very little to work with and are there simply to aid the development of the unconvincing, uninteresting protagonist. Apart from being repetitive and slow, it also turns out to be rather anticlimactic, because there are no high stakes. Yes, Mank has money problems, but it is not something unheard of in Tinseltown. Yes, we are repeatedly told that Hearst is a dangerous enemy but we neither see why, nor do we see any repercussions for Mank for finishing Citizen Kane, apart from winning an Oscar. Moreover, it is unclear what this film is about. Not that it has to be spelled out to the viewers or that it has to be about one single thing, but still there has to be some focus. Was it about the writing of one of the greatest films ever made? Or about the toil of artistic genius? Or the tensions between Welles and Mankiewicz? Or about the dangers of politics in Hollywood? On the whole, Mank feels like a scattered, sketchy stage play inefficiently adapted for screen. One asks oneself whether Fincher did any significant rewriting to his father’s script or was he faithful to the original draft.

And there is one other issue, which might not be a problem for all but would be for many. The first third of the film is very enjoyable and entertaining because it leads the viewer behind the scenes of the Hollywood studios of the first half of the previous century. However, after this the film becomes strongly concentrated on politics and how Hollywood, together with the press, influenced elections. This is very interesting indeed, especially since it shows how little has changed in LA. The only difference is that the film portrays the Hollywood bias in the past as Republican, whilst today it is overwhelmingly Democrat. And yet, albeit interesting, one can’t help but think that the timing of this film is flawed. For the last four years we have all been compelled to watch the hysterical farce of American politics, with its fake news and electoral system that has lost much of its integrity and reliability. This, topped by COVID and the looming economic crisis, is somewhat exhausting.

This film was bound to have limited viewership from the start. It is for those who adore old movies, who want to know more about the production of Citizen Kane, and who are interested in politics. Seen against the background of Fincher’s other work, it looks foreign and of lesser significance. Nevertheless, its abundance of themes and its visual perfection would be rewarding to many. And, towards the very end of the film, in the one short moment when Charles Dance’s character was allowed to speak, there came a change to the story. It became ambiguous. The boundary between good and evil melted, and it was no longer clear on whose side the viewers should be. Mank is not a genius movie, but it did borrow some of the enigmatic lustre of Citizen Kane and for that only, in our age of Lilliputians, it is worth seeing.

‘Review of Mank: Fincher’s Flawed Curiosity’ is an article written by Kyril Buhowski. You can follow Kyril Buhowski on Instagram.