David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020)

Few films have cast a longer shadow throughout cinematic history  than Orson Welles’ monumental CITIZEN KANE (1941). Hailed by critics and cinephiles for decades as “the greatest film ever made”, Welles’ mythical, monumental masterpiece has always had a complicated relationship with both its audience and its industry. When it comes to the real drama behind its creation, it’s difficult to separate the facts from the fiction— the larger-than-life raconteur credited as its director has certainly seen to that. Indeed, the question of credit is one of CITIZEN KANE’s most enduring conceits; how on Earth could one man — barely a man at that, all of 24 years old— be solely responsible for one of the defining cultural landmarks of the twentieth century? Like the kaleidoscopic multitude of perspectives that color the film, the story of CITIZEN KANE’s creation changes dramatically depending on who’s telling it. 

One such account comes from renowned critic Pauline Kael, who published an article in a 1971 issue of the New Yorker titled “Raising Kane”. Her angle — in which Welles was merely a credit-stealer riding on the coattails of screenwriter and KANE’s true creative authority, Herman Mankiewicz — has been challenged numerous times over the years but nevertheless endures as a compelling counter-narrative to the historical consensus (2). Twenty years later after its publication, Kael’s article would capture the imagination of a screenwriter named Jack Fincher, prompting the development of a spec script titled, simply, MANK. Not long after, Jack’s son, music video and commercials director David Fincher, was experiencing ascendant career momentum in the theatrical feature space. His natural proximity to MANK’s development caused him to take an interest too, and after the success of his 1997 feature THE GAME, he actively campaigned to get his father’s passion project made. From the start, Fincher had intended to shoot in black-and-white— his convictions so deeply held that he didn’t buckle when executives made it clear that monochrome was a dealbreaker. 

And so MANK would languish in the proverbial drawer; long past Fincher’s 90’s heyday, and beyond father Jack’s passing in 2003… all the way until the stars would finally align in the late 2010’s, a few years into the filmmaker’s exclusive partnership with Netflix. Arguably one of the biggest beneficiaries of the disruptive streamer’s aggressive (and expensive) push to poach Hollywood’s top creatives by bankrolling their passion projects and offering full creative control, Fincher was finally in a position to bring his father’s work to the screen— even if said screen was smaller than initially envisioned. Developing alongside Douglas Urbanski and his partner Ceán Chaffin, Fincher would bring on his CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON collaborator Eric Roth as an additional producer who would also perform an uncredited rewrite that aimed to pull back the throttle somewhat on the script’s critical view of Welles (3). Since the disastrous production of ALIEN 3 (1992), Fincher had been willing to work overtime and to burn any bridge to leverage as much control as he could possibly muster. His reputation as an exacting filmmaker with equally high expectations for his cast and crew has afforded him more creative leeway than most, but MANK is on another level entirely. Freed from any box office considerations that might otherwise compromise his vision, and working under the purview of a new breed of Silicon Valley studio executives who wanted nothing more than than the potential audience his name power would draw to their digital platform, Fincher was in a position to indulge every artistic whim. The result would be an ambitious, complicated work— at once a win for artistic expression as well as a cautionary tale with the moral that, sometimes, guardrails can be a beneficial shaping force rather than a restrictive one.

MANK evokes the luminescent classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age in its telling of the creation of CITIZEN KANE, leaning heavily into Kael’s controversial alternate account that champions Herman Mankiewicz’s influence. Jack Fincher’s script uses the actual writing of KANE’s screenplay — undertaken in 1940 while Mank is holed up with a leg injury somewhere in the bone-dry Victorville desert — as a framing device for the real narrative, which unspools in flashbacks detailing Mank’s misadventures in Hollywood during the tense Great Depression years. Despite being a decade or two older than the real-life Mankiewicz during this time, Gary Oldman slips effortlessly into Fincher’s fictionalized rendition of the embattled screenwriter. Cranky, slovenly, and increasingly addled by his alcoholism, Mank isn’t exactly the most appealing protagonist to follow around for two hours, but Oldman’s inherently compelling, Oscar-nominated presence goes a long way. The story is less interested in his craft than it is in his politics, generating a surprising amount of dramatic conflict between Mank’s Communist sympathies and the studio heads’ hawkish conflation of capitalism with patriotism. Arliss Howard and Charles Dance form a kind of dual-headed hydra in this regard, their very presence being something of an oblique acknowledgment of ALIEN 3’s existence on Fincher’s part— both men delivered substantial contributions to his since-disowned debut feature but had yet to collaborate with him again until now. In MANK, Howard proves an inspired choice as Louis B Mayer, the bulldog chairman of MGM and a ruthless businessman tasked with guiding his studio through serious economic challenges. He’s an embodiment of that strange, uniquely-American admiration of wealth, able to deploy the saltiest of crocodile tears in his successful bid to convince his employees to take a 50% pay cut while sacrificing nothing himself. Dance cuts an imposing figure as William Randolph Hearst, the ultra-rich newspaper tycoon upon whom the character of Charles Foster Kane is based. Indeed, MANK does a great job in conveying just how obscenely wealthy the man was— the imposing, cavernous hallways of his castle at San Simeon come complete with a full staff (including a guy whose one job is to simply turn on the lights when people enter the room), and one can easily see how the sprawling structure influenced the gothic design of CITIZEN KANE’s Xanadu.

Mank’s extraordinary career places him in orbit around a constellation of stars and other influential people. His interactions with Hearst result in the development of a platonic connection with Hearst’s young partner, the famed starlet Marion Davies. Played by Amanda Seyfried with an affable feistiness that would earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Marion finds herself charmed by Mank’s nimble skewering of Hearst’s stratospheric wealth— at least until it begins to affect her personally. Tom Burke has the unenviable task of inhabiting the mythic silhouette of Orson Welles, whom Fincher depicts as a figure already larger than life via deep wells of shadow and intimidating compositions. For all the influence he commands over MANK’s plotting, Mank and Welles don’t physically meet until the end; this helps to give the scene the feel of a proper climax, structuring their creative differences as a veritable clash of titans. Burke’s sophisticated sensibilities help him to channel Welles’ flowery, idiosyncratic showmanship while finding the little nuances that defy mere impression. The noted producer Irving Thalberg, played by Ferdinand Kingsley, appears throughout MANK’s flashback sequences as an unexpected ally of sorts; a shark who is nonetheless fair and pragmatic, Thalberg gives Mank’s disruptive creativity a healthy amount of leeway where others would not. His untimely passing, then, becomes a key event leading to Mank’s downfall with MGM. Joseph Cross inhabits the guise of Charles Lederer, introduced to us as Marion’s nephew and a supporting presence for Mank’s workflow who would later go on to be an influential screwball comedy writer and director in his own right. Bill Nye — you know, the Science Guy — delivers a rare narrative turn as Upton Sinclair, seen briefly making a stump speech at one of his campaign rallies while Mank watches on with growing admiration.

Despite the gravity of these luminous, influential figures, MANK’s story finds ample opportunity for normal, everyday people to make an impact. This includes Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, a headstrong typist who commits Mank’s words to paper while he recovers from the accident that begins the film. Tuppence Middleton plays Mank’s wife, Sara— or “Poor Sara”, as he’s fond of saying. Theirs is an interesting relationship: as Mank grows further entrenched in his eccentricities (and his alcoholism), she must endure more of his antics around an increasingly powerful array of people. A strong-willed, independent person in her own right, it naturally comes into question why she would continue to subject herself to this life — a slow death by a million humiliations. The answer, as she explains late in the film, is not out of love. Fittingly enough for a film about the movies, she stays out of a morbid curiosity; she has to see how the story ends.

Even with its monochromatic palette and emulation of Depression-era aesthetics, Fincher’s exacting visual style distinguishes MANK as a work with impeccable technical standards. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s Oscar win for his work here is a testament to the ultra-high caliber that Fincher holds all of his collaborators to. Shot with Leitz Summilux-C lenses on the Red Ranger Monochrome camera, MANK is at once a study in cutting-edge digital photography and an exhibit in the perceived imperfections inherent to celluloid. Just as if they had shot on traditional black-and-white film stock, the selection of the Red Ranger Monochrome camera would be a particularly consequential one; the sensor is incapable of capturing color, so there is no going back once shooting begins. The tradeoff is that the sensor boasts increased light sensitivity and can even capture infrared wavelengths, leading to a distinct look that can’t be replicated in color or even in post. The total absence of color is of zero hindrance to Fincher and Messerschmidt, who worked as a gaffer on Fincher’s recent features until he was elevated to cinematographer on MINDHUNTER. They shape the unconventional 2.20:1 frame via the meticulous balance of shadow and light, drawing ample inspiration from cinematographer Gregg Toland’s work on KANE (4) in addition to other classic noir films from the same period in which the story is set. The highlights are even a touch too hot, in the same sense that a hangover can make the sun unbearably bright. 

The rigorous use of low-angle compositions and formalistic camerawork is consistent with Fincher’s established style, but MANK distinguishes itself via additional aesthetic affectations imposed upon both picture and sound. To hear the filmmakers themselves describe it, the general idea was to present MANK as if it was as old as CITIZEN KANE itself— a counter-narrative produced, eclipsed and ultimately forgotten about in the wake of KANE’s success, left to linger as an unrestored print in Martin Scorsese’s basement for eighty years. One would expect the addition of emulated film grain, but Fincher and his editing partner Kirk Baxter go several steps further with their attention to detail, adding scratches, dust, and even cigarette burns of the very type Tyler Durden described in 1999’s FIGHT CLUB. They even increase the density of said grain during crossfades and other transitions—  a replication of an artifact from the optical printer days, where the temporarily-degraded quality of the image reflects the splicingof a second-generation print into the conformed camera negative. To emphasize the writer’s perspective, Fincher deploys sluglines on-screen that help orient our placement in the nonlinear presentation of events. In any other story, this conceit could come across as too clever or cutesy for its own good, but its presence here reinforces the critical importance of the screenplay in the overall filmmaking process. 

MANK’s unconventional sound mix, carried out by Fincher’s longtime sound designer Ren Klyce, runs the risk of turning viewers off from the film entirely but succeeds rather brilliantly in its intention. Initially mixed in the contemporary 5.1 standard but delivered in the vintage monaural format, MANK sounds much like it would if one were to watch it in a drafty old arthouse theater. There’s a distinct reverb, causing dialogue and music to echo softly as if it were filling a large space. In the context of the private home-viewing experience that streaming provides, this technique helps MANK to feel larger than life (and our various screens). The major drawback, however, is that it also throws up another layer of remove between the story and the audience; another barrier to full immersiveness within a viewing environment already beset by suboptimal light conditions and the constant distraction of cell phones within easy reach. Then again, it could be argued that the freedom for experimentation afforded by the subscription streaming model is the only environment in which Fincher’s audacious idea is remotely feasible.

MANK marks Fincher’s fourth consecutive collaboration with the composing duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The orchestral score is a significant departure from the moody electronic soundscapes that the Nine Inch Nails frontman and his creative partner are known for, further committing to Fincher’s “lost film from the 40’s” bit by crafting a lush, old-school sound full of intrigue and romance. Whereas Fincher and company were able to wrap the four-month, California-based shoot before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (5), the timing of the score records was not so fortuitous. Unable to gather as a single orchestra, the musicians would record their individual parts from home using only instruments that would have been in use during the 1940’s; Reznor and Ross would then join the various fragments back together in their studio before applying distortion to emulate the distinct analog warble of an old recording. The result is a one-of-a kind score that exhibits the wide range of Reznor’s musicality in particular— when a musician is already well known for a certain sound, like Reznor is for the growling electronic nature of his solo work, we tend to impose boundaries or boxes. We like to reign our artists in so they might deliver a consistent sound to us over the years. MANK’s score represents an opportunity for an established artist to stretch out into personally-uncharted territories, and to remind us of the scope of musical expertise that he needed to possess in order to be so successful in the first place.

MANK reverberates with the thematic signatures that Fincher has built his career on; that his father’s screenplay already provides such a natural conduit for their inclusion suggests that such fascinations run in the family. The emphasis on technology throughout his films is manifest in MANK via the tools of storytelling and communication, with Fincher going to great lengths to display the stagecraft and sleight of hand that constitutes the “magic” of the movies while simultaneously exploring the sociopolitical ramifications of mass media’s rise. Indeed, the story of mass media in the twentieth century is one of struggle; the battle for dominance between fact and fiction, and the peril inherent in their intermixing. Mank and Hearst are the figureheads at their respective ends of the spectrum, with Mank using his fictitious screenplays to illuminate a certain truth to the human condition while Hearst uses his newspaper empire to bend the facts into a certain fiction he wishes to impose on the world. That his studio employers openly sympathize with Hearst both socially and politically forces Mank into an increasingly untenable position where, in order to further his own ends, he must bite the hand that feeds— a development that plays rather neatly into the punk strain Fincher has cultivated throughout works like FIGHT CLUB, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.

The various battlegrounds of this specific tug-of-war further emboldens Fincher’s eye for architecture and how the contours of the built environment shape the drama occurring within it. Both Mank and Hearst have their own respective base camps, the former’s being a dingy and romantic bungalow hideaway in the Victorville desert while the latter holds court in a cold, cavernous coastal castle in San Simeon. Between them, there are the cubed soundstages and sprawling studio lots of Old Hollywood and glamorous nightclubs like downtown LA’s venerated Cicada Club, playing host to a centerpiece sequence where Mank and his studio bosses watch the vote tallies come in during a boozy Election Night that comes to represent the inevitable collision of their respective worldviews. Much like MANK’s technical presentation suggests itself as an artifact from a long time ago, the organic curves and Art Deco stylings of its various environments capture a bygone, romantic era tempered by shadow and decay.

At its heart, MANK is a film about control. Few directors understand its importance more than Fincher; beyond his infamy for regularly demanding upwards of a hundred takes from his actors, his exacting proclivities have also made themselves known via the deconstruction of performances down to the individual syllable and the subsequent patching together of these minute fragments to achieve a deliberate cadence. Additionally, VFX enthusiasts have come to marvel at the subtle, literally invisible way in which he digitally manipulates his image to get it just the way he wants; from the removal of telephone lines to the replacement of skies, to the addition of sidewalk curbs, every pixel is negotiable. After the debacle that was ALIEN 3’s production, Fincher has come to understand that, while filmmaking is a collaborative process involving a small army of talented craft people, it is the director whose name is permanently conjoined to a film’s legacy. In this light, why shouldn’t a director insist on perfection? Of course, the question of authorship isn’t always so straightforward. MANK’s positioning of the eponymous screenwriter as the true visionary behind CITIZEN KANE highlights the creative clash between writers and directors, and illustrates how the battle for control over the narrative of a film’s legacy can sometimes overshadow the story they mean to tell. 

Ironically, MANK’s indulgence in Pauline Kael’s hotly-contested counter-narrative would effectively kneecap its reception among many critics (7), keeping it from being as fully appreciated as Fincher’s previous work. Writing for Indiewire, critic Eric Kohn would tease out a rather generous interpretation of this alternate history: “However much credit Mankiewicz deserves for KANE, Fincher…makes a compelling argument for appreciating the prescience behind its conception. His life had a rough ending, but the movie about it gives him one last bitter laugh (6)”. The film’s closing images, of Mank accepting his Oscar for KANE while getting in one more dig at Welles, hint at Fincher’s own awards circuit ambitions— a desire shared even more-transparently by Netflix itself, as evidenced by the streaming platform’s decision to first release MANK in a very limited theatrical fashion so as to qualify for awards consideration. The strategy would pay off, resulting in ten Oscar nominations. Though it would be recognized in marquee categories like Best Picture, Best Director (Fincher’s third nod from the Academy), Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, MANK’s ultimate Oscar haul would be concentrated within the craft categories of Best Cinematography and Best Production Design. In retrospect, this may very well be the apt result— Messerschmidt’s carefully-calibrated throwback aesthetic complements, to a superlative degree, the unsentimental period recreation by Fincher’s frequent production designer Donald Graham Burt. Whenever MANK is discussed in the years to come, these two aspects will very likely be the central focus of conversation. Like THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON before it, MANK’s softer, less-nihilistic edges might alienate hardcore fans of his steely, perfectionist aesthetic. They may very well need to brace themselves for what’s to come: we’re bound to see a looser filmmaker… more playful and aesthetically-curious. As long as his deal with Netflix is in place, Fincher is in a prime position to usher in a prolific period of rejuvenated creativity and deliver on long-held ambitions.

MANK is currently available as a 4K Ultra HD stream via Netflix.

Credits:

Produced by: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski,

Written by: Jack Fincher

Director of Photography: Erik Messerschmidt

Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt

Edited by: Kirk Baxter

Sound Design by: Ren Klyce

Music by: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Mank (2020) – Financial Information”. The Numbers. Archived from the original on December 8, 2020. Retrieved November 30, 2020.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Harris, Mark (October 23, 2020). “Nerding Out With David Fincher The director talks about his latest, Mank, a tale of Hollywood history, political power, and the creative act”. Vulture. Archived from the original on October 24, 2020. Retrieved October 24, 2020.
  4. Via Wikipedia: Desowitz, Bill (December 7, 2020). “How “Mank” Shot Day for Night, and in Hi-Dynamic Range Black-and-White”. IndieWire. Archived from the original on December 7, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2020.
  5. Via Wikipedia: Principal Photography Wraps On Netflix Biopic ‘Mank'”. WellsNet. February 4, 2020. Archived from the original on May 13, 2020. Retrieved April 29, 2020.
  6. Via Wikipedia: Kohn, Eric (November 6, 2020). “‘Mank’ Review: David Fincher’s Best Movie Since ‘The Social Network’ Puts Hollywood in Its Place”. IndieWire. Archived from the original on November 6, 2020. Retrieved November 6, 2020.

Via Wikipedia:  “The Kane Mutiny and Related Disputes | Jonathan Rosenbaum”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s