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Review: David Fincher's love for golden age Hollywood shines in immersive 'Mank'

Courtesy of Netflix


An alluring black and white tale about the golden age of Hollywood, David Fincher’s immersive “Mank'' tackles “Citizen Kane'' screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman never smoother) in a unique and partially fictional biography on the Oscar winner’s quest to write arguably the greatest movie of all time. Fincher is known for being a perfectionist and if his catalog of iconic films: “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “Zodiac” have taught us anything, he doesn’t settle for less.

The director’s first feature since 2014’s “Gone Girl,” Fincher delivers the best reincarnation of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood in recent memory (sorry Ryan Murphy). Hell, “Mank” is exactly the type of film its troubled subject would have loved to make: a deep dive that basks in an era riddled with corruption, wastes no time exposing those who were complacent, and still finds moments to appreciate motion pictures. There’s plenty for audiences to unpack and cinephiles across the country will rejoice, though one can’t help but notice how ironic it is that “Mank” will primarily be seen on a streamer. Mankiewicz couldn’t have predicted the digital age would dismantle commercial prospects for adult driven dramas. If “Citizen Kane'' were released today, it would be on streaming.

Netflix has spared no expense allowing Fincher to execute his lucious vision on a subject who is just as unpredictable as he is. Oldman doesn’t just play Mankiewicz; he embodies every seething ounce of droll wit and sarcasm the famed screenwriter was infamous for. All the wisecracks and blunt cynicism that helped dictate “Citizen Kane'' are peppered throughout “Mank'' and Fincher has assembled a diverse pool of talent to help progress his story. Tuppence Middleton is remarkable as Mank’s suffering wife Sara; Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies radiates with charm – she knew the screenwriter through loose connections with her nephew, Charles Lederer – and the immaculate Charles Dance is her bankrolling boyfriend, famed filmmaker William Randolph Hearst (of which “Citizen Kane” was loosely modeled after). But it’s Tom Burke's extended cameo as Orson Welles that makes a lasting, head turning, impression.

Fincher takes liberties with how Mankiewicz wrote the script, suggesting it was done while the screenwriter was immobilized in bed following a bad car accident (in reality, he started writing “Citizen Kane” after recovering from his injuries). Fincher writes Mankiewicz and his crew to be a pack of sexist, bleary-eyed lads who regret not pursuing careers in literature. But he attempts to humanize Mankiewicz with a philanthropic backstory, giving him a more robust social status, and romanticizing how Mank could stroll into swanky parties - drunk as a sailor - and say whatever he wanted. This approach doesn’t always work, and Fincher seems more caught up in telling the fictionalized portion of the story than delving into facts, creating a weird balance that’s become customary for the filmmakers’ approach. But it’s Fincher, and the director usually makes a profound statement despite the muffled path to get there. 

Out of everything, “Mank” is about a renowned journalist striving to get the accolades and credits he desperately yearned for and one who believed in a free and fair press. The Mankiewicz on display loathes fake news propaganda made to discredit socialist author Upton Sinclair in the 1934 California gubernatorial race (I’m sure Fincher would love to imagine Mankiewicz leading the charge today against right-wing media empires) and is an obsessive gambler riddled with debt. He’s a troubled man, but at least there’s moral decency lurking beneath the wounded emotional scars of his past. 

Written by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher, “Mank” is obviously an attestation to how our parents influence our work. It was no secret that Herman Mankiewicz and his brother Joseph (played here by Tom Pelphrey) were obsessed with their father’s accomplishments who ultimately helped lay the narrative groundwork for “Citizen Kane” (coincidentally, it was also the reason behind Mankiewicz’s alcoholism). Yes, it’s a messy character study that presents various caricatures of a fractured man battling transgressions and trying to get the last word on his creation. This is how movies used to get made and probably why the Writers Guild of America was created. Fincher understands better than anyone, having battled executives over the years to make sure his vision never faltered, and with “Mank” he may have reached his philosophical apex. 

Finally, major praise to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible, award worthy score (their best since “The Social Network”), Erik Messerschmidt’s stunning cinematography, Trish Summerville’s polished costume design and the entire sound department who all collectively make the audience feel like there in a time capsule.

Grade: B+ 

MANK streams on Netflix Friday, December 4th. 


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