Mank: An Unexpected Journey (Review)
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
On the surface, yet another period piece waxing lyrical over the "golden years" of American cinema (of which there are an impossible number to keep track of at this rate), garnering the excessively gratuitous praise of the entire industry afflicted with the most curious case of Hollywood nostalgia quite honestly feels exasperating. And yet, David Fincher's latest Netflix release, a passion-project as an ode to his late father and screenwriter Jack Fincher and a tribute to one of the most revered films in the canons of American film history; on the contrary, felt like one of the freshest cinematic takes of this year.
After spending a better half of the year in deep-seated scepticism over the film, Mank – after it's titular character and renowned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz – was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. Spanning a runtime of just over two hours, the film boasts some of the most detailed, technical mastery by a director of Fincher's calibre. Made to look and feel exactly like a '30s Hollywood production, from the grainy, emulsified wash over the film to the blemished lighting and flashy editing; the film brings back to life a slice of cinema from a bygone era. The technical brilliance of the film is thanks to the most sublime camera work rendered black & white, the massive scale of its production design, the richness of its costumes and chiefly, the most beautiful reworking of the brass heavy swing tones of '30s, courtesy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; all carefully orchestrated under the painstaking guidance of Fincher.
Some earlier apprehension surrounding the film comprises mainly of its accessibility in terms of its capacity to engage and involve an audience that may not entirely grasp the historical and cultural significance it possesses or put simply, bores the unaccustomed senseless. Rest assured, the film succeeds in doing precisely the same. However, that wouldn't necessarily be its undoing.
The exclusivity that threatens the film's delicious dialogue would in all likelihood be misconstrued as a deliberate attempt at raising the narrative to a pedestal of grandiosity when in fact the very same language of affectation calls for a closer examination. Concealed behind every clever witticism and exchange is a haven of Easter eggs for observant Kane fans and film history buffs. Of course that isn't to say that portions of the script don't come off as overtly ostentatious and go straight over one's head, however following a mantra as put very aptly by Gary Oldman's Mank himself would do wonders for the viewing experience. "One, don't roll your eyes. Two, try not to fall asleep"
The rhetoric the film had going for itself was the momentum it would build solely from its significance as the story that birthed one of the greatest stories in American cinema. Its function as a semi-biopic of Mankiewicz and his process in crafting the screenplay is enough to get most "cinephiles" drooling. From someone who finds Citizen Kane unpalatable and puffed up beyond belief, it was rather startling to find another, and arguably, the more important rhetoric of the two, namely, a critique of an otherwise sacrosanct early Hollywood. Mankiewicz political adroitness lays the groundwork for encounters with the ultra-patriotic face of Hollywood executives and the decisive hand they played in influencing U.S. politics. The narrative while extolling the many marvels of the industry, served equally as an exposé on major production houses and their dirty work. A backhanded compliment of sorts to the era and to the industry.
The film isn't exactly performance driven. Even showrunner Gary Oldman executes his performance to the degree of acceptability. Save for the odd dramatic monologue or two, the acting in the film serves nothing more than its purpose to compliment anything and everything else, to heighten the film as a holistic cinematic experience. The Finchers, both son and father, as director and screenwriter, shine brightest and take the spotlight for the achievements of this film. And while Fincher's tribute to the industry, to Kane and to his father may be an acquired taste, Mank, in all its faux sophisticated glory, demonstrates the only acceptable kind of ode to American filmmaking of old.