Fincher's 'Mank' is a Hollywood throwback in a year with few contenders

Brad Keefe
"Mank"

This is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

I’m not talking about holidays. I’m talking about the movie critic holiday known as “Awards Season.”

‘Tis normally the season for studios to be filling my screening calendar and my mailbox with movies they hope will be contenders for year-end lists and the usual slate of awards. This year it feels like another reminder that this year isn’t normal.

It’s clear that David Fincher’s new film, “Mank,” was intended to drop in a normal awards season, a splashy contender to show that streaming studios deserve consideration among the industry’s best.

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It feels in many ways like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 “Roma,” when Netflix landed exclusive rights to a buzzy arthouse Oscar contender that was a favorite for a Best Picture Oscar. (Though it got 10 Oscar nods, it fell short in the Best Picture category.)

“Mank” is another film from an acclaimed director, a labor of love that’s a technical marvel and filmed in stunning black and white. And, like “Roma,” “Mank” feels a little out of place among most Netflix fare, a movie snobs can praise but is unlikely to become a phenomenon on the service a la "Tiger King," which enthralled early-pandemic America.

"Mank" is the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (aka Mank, played by Gary Oldman), who co-wrote “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles (Tom Burke in an uncanny but limited performance). But the film is really a larger look at the gauzy haze of 1930s Hollywood, a peek into the peak of the studio system and its political machinations.

Mank is doing his writing in a remote house while recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash, with the help of a talented assistant (Lily Collins), who tries to keep the rambunctious, alcoholic writer on task. We see his interactions with powerful MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and an ongoing platonic flirtation with a film starlet (a well-cast Amanda Seyfried).

This is Fincher’s first film since 2014’s “Gone Girl,” which I hated, despite its general critical praise. This is clearly personal work, as Fincher grew up in the industry and is working from a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher.

That screenplay is absolutely bursting with wit and rhetorical flourishes befitting a movie about a writer. It’s a perfect playground for the always great Oldman in what would be a Best Actor shoo-in even in a year with a full slate of films. Watching Oldman at work is one of the purest joys of “Mank.”

The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt is a gorgeous ode to the techniques of the era, creating a throwback feel. Similarly, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross create a classic soundtrack that sounds like nothing you’d expect from the current members of Nine Inch Nails.

But while “Mank” feels like a film that’s made to collect award nominations, it’s also the kind of film where you marvel more at the craft than the story. Even as a writer, I found it hard to get drawn into this world. And it’s another instance of the self-celebration that Hollywood loves to do.

Even with the liberties taken, it’s not particularly enlightening to the controversy around who really was the creative force behind the “Kane” screenplay. As its main character descends into alcoholism, it’s more of a showcase of Oldman than a dive into the twisted relationship between the writer and the bottle.

“Mank” is undeniably a great work of craft worth seeing for the technique alone. It’s also classic Oscar bait.

“Mank”

Now streaming on Netflix
3 stars out of 5