If Tommy Wiseau's The Room is "The Citizen Kane of bad films", my question is: "Is David Fincher's Mank the Citizen Kane of impenetrable biopics?"
Set in Hollywood, starring Gary Oldman as the titular character (officially known as Herman J. Mankiewicz), the film's narrative jumps back and forth between the present (1940) and various flashbacks in the 1930s. After receiving complete creative freedom from production company RKO, Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke) hires Mank as his screenwriter for his first feature film - the legendary Citizen Kane (1941). However, Mank is a notorious alcoholic and the film's producer (Sam Troughton), Mank's secretary (Lily Collins), and Orson Welles express concerns over the screenplay's density, as well as its looming deadline.
It goes without saying that Mank's appeal for cinephiles is its story, about what many consider to be the greatest film ever made. There is an appetite for biopics that explore the production process behind legendary films. In 2018, the Hungarian film Curtiz was released, based on the making of another Hollywood classic, Casablanca (1942). Even the aforementioned "Citizen Kane of bad films" received the biopic treatment in 2017, with The Disaster Artist. The story behind the film Mank itself is intriguing. Mank's screenplay was written by David Fincher's father, Jack Fincher, prior to his death in 2003. The project was originally planned to be David Fincher's follow-up after The Game (1997), but never came to fruition due to Fincher's insistence on shooting the film in black-and-white. It is a love letter not only to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but also to Jack Fincher's work as a screenwriter.
This reverence for the past is clear immediately; as well as being shot in black-and-white, the audio was recorded in mono sound. Each time shift is introduced with screen captions that emulate a screenplay's scene heading (e.g. 'EXT. VICTORVILLE, CALIFORNIA - DAY'). There are even changeover cue dots that appear in the top right-hand corner of the frame every 20 minutes or so, despite the film being shot digitally.
However, the novelty of these stylistic choices wears off quickly once the plot begins to unfold. "All in all, it's a bit of a jumble", "A collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans", "The story is so scattered, I'm afraid one will need a roadmap". This feedback from Orson Welles to Mank after reading his early draft of Citizen Kane ironically (probably intentionally, let's be honest) describes the experience of watching Mank perfectly. Regardless of which fragment I found myself watching, the film's dialogue focuses mainly on anecdotes concerning key figures in 1930s Hollywood, or the politics surrounding a gubernatorial election. I felt a bit like I was at a party surrounded by friends of friends I hadn't met before, listening to their stories without the context needed to fully understand or appreciate their in-jokes. It felt like it was catering to a very niche audience of film historians.
I am a long-time Gary Oldman fan and was looking forward to watching his performance. I found him completely believable as a washed-up alcoholic screenwriter; he often staggers from place to place, slurring his words and rebuking his naysayers with acerbic wit. Despite Mank's faults, this playful side makes his character likeable. I enjoyed some of his clever word play; examples include "I was plagued by spirits", when describing a night of heavy drinking, and "What's at stake here?" upon seeing actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) tied to a stake on a film set during a shoot. However, as good as Gary Oldman was as Mank, I felt like I didn't come away from the film learning that much about him. The same goes for Marion Davies - Amanda Seyfried's performance was great, but the film barely scratched the surface of who she was.
In response to Welles's criticism, Mank tells him, "You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one". In this case, I really wish Mank had delved deeper. It manages to capture the look and sound of 1930s cinema (the score was composed by David Fincher's long-time collaborators, Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose, using period-appropriate instruments), but its 131-minute runtime dragged by. I must confess, Citizen Kane is still on my watch list, so maybe this will be one to revisit once I do get round to watching it. But if you, like me, still haven't seen Citizen Kane, you may also find yourself wishing you could have learned more about this witty, slightly unhinged, screenwriting genius.