Filmmakers love working with Netflix. The streaming giant has deep pockets and loose reins, allowing the likes of Scorsese, Sorkin and Soderbergh to exercise their vision without much pressure on either the storytelling or the purse strings. David Fincher has long been a member of the Netflix family, helping to catalyse the company's telly dominance with House of Cards and then making the brilliant Mindhunter in recent years. His latest movie project – the first he has made since 2014's masterful Gone Girl – has now landed with Netflix and, once you see it, the reasons become inevitable.
Mank is a rambling, indulgent and occasionally very impressive recounting of the conception and writing of all time Hollywood classic Citizen Kane. It revives the largely discredited theory famously posited by film critic Pauline Kael in a 1971 essay that celebrated screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was the sole author of Citizen Kane, despite director-star Orson Welles taking the lion's share of the credit. Gary Oldman plays the title role, with The Souvenir actor Tom Burke as the 24-year-old Welles, who was then considered Hollywood's resident boy genius.
Much like Kane, the movie is structured via a series of flashbacks. The central frame of the story sees Mank in 1940, injured after a car accident and ensconced on a ranch where he can dictate his soon-to-be-Oscar-winning screenplay to secretary Rita (Lily Collins) with only occasional input from Welles over the phone. Flashbacks follow Mank in the 1930s as he hobnobs with news mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), his actor mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and various other members of the Hollywood elite, while the Great Depression cast its shadow over America.
In order to understand Mank, one has to unpick its origins. The movie was originally earmarked as Fincher's follow-up to The Game in the late 1990s with the director's father, Jack Fincher, penning the script prior to his death in 2003. The younger Fincher was determined to shoot in black and white, which put the kibosh on the project with the major studios. It has taken until now, and until Netflix, for the filmmaker to find a home for his vision. Mank is a movie made without compromise and with a clear sense of authorial intent – both for better and worse.
Cinematically, this is every inch a Fincher production and radiates the Oscar-nominated director's well-publicised perfectionism at every turn. It's a precision-tooled love letter to Old Hollywood, told through the monochrome time capsule of Erik Messerschmidt's beautiful cinematography. The most joyous segments of the movie are the ones in which Oldman's sozzled Mank bumbles around various Hollywood boardrooms and film sets offending people with his refusal to mince words.
It's in these moments that Oldman's typically over-cranked performance finds its energy, as opposed to the slightly cartoonish depiction of him as a bulky alcoholic convalescing within his secluded writing den. One sequence at a star-studded dinner, in particular, sees the British star give it both barrels to great effect. Reports suggest the scene was achieved via more than 100 takes.
Oldman's performance is given the lion's share of the best material, though Charles Dance makes the most of his brief scenes as Hearst and Ferdinand Kingsley shines as producer Irving Thalberg – a rare intellectual match for Mank in the rat-a-tat, wordy scenes.
The problem, though, is that Mank often feels like a rather hollow exercise in style. It spends a lot of time wallowing in the corrosive politics of Hollywood during the 1930s – with studio execs taking down a socialist politician played in a cameo by, and this is not a joke, Bill Nye the Science Guy – and not enough on the actual process of making Citizen Kane. Indeed, the fascinating wrangle between Mankiewicz and Welles over screen credit is relegated to just a few scenes, which push Burke's enjoyably Machiavellian take on the lauded filmmaker to the sidelines.
But his fate is mild compared to that of the movie's female characters. Seyfried is the best of the bunch, able to bring her trademark luminosity to the talented Marion Davies, who found herself professionally doomed by virtue of her association with Hearst. Both Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton, however, are given barely a pinch of depth between them as, respectively, Mank's secretary and his wife. Collins starts off interesting but is quickly shunted into a generic, supportive role, while Middleton is never given the chance to actually provide a compelling reason to the audience for her marriage to this deeply flawed man. A late in the day scene sheds some light on why she has stuck with her husband, but the initial attraction is deemed surplus to requirements. This is a standard “Great Man” movie, so we're meant to take his irresistibility to women – not to mention his prodigious intellectual gifts – as a given.
That narrative complacency plagues the movie as a whole, assuming that the mere status of these characters immediately hands emotional connection to the audience. The result is a movie of such stately momentum and self-proclaimed grandeur that it often feels as if it considers something as trifling as emotion to be below its lofty aspirations. Fincher has constructed something which is glossier and smoother than audiences will expect from the notoriously prickly, edgy provocateur of prestige cinema – and lacks some of his idiosyncratic appeal as a result.
Given possibly the most freedom he has ever had to create exactly what he wanted, one of Hollywood's most unique directors has stumbled into doing something that, dare I say it, feels like Just Another Biopic.