Dir: David Fincher
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
Citizen Kane has long been considered the measuring stick by which other cinema has been judged. A miraculous product of an unconstrained (by any studio interference) 24 year old first time director, Orson Welle’s directorial debut sat atop critic lists as the best film of all time for decades. In recent years the shine may have started to finally come off Kane with seemingly more recent lists favouring the likes of (and rightly so) Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But Kane still stands as a monolithic achievement of movie making.
My personal observations about Kane are that while undoubtedly a masterpiece, it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t always translate well in the eyes of modern viewers or casual cinemagoers. There are a multitude of reasons for this chief among them being A) it is black and white (some people have a completely irrational dislike of this) B) Despite Kane not being an especially complex story (morally complex but not complex as a narrative) it is none the less seen as somewhat more opaque when compared to the excessively dumbed down nature of today’s world of “content”. And C) it’s a film where much of its brilliance rests on what you might call ‘technical innovation’ be it Kane’s universal focus, sound design, editing techniques, fractured narrative which were all cutting edge at the time but these days we take for granted. Kane invented much of our cinematic language, so is forever doomed to seem less impressive in a future where its very own inventions have become the norm. Even without this context Kane is still a remarkable and relevant watch, the perverse reality is it’s one of Donald Trump’s favourite movies, which is to say that Trump has entirely missed the point of the movies meaning. Kane still rings with resonance but undoubtedly it’s not a brilliance contemporary audiences are always willing to take to the time to appreciate. So it seems odd that a movie about its production by an exceptionally populist director should be amongst this year’s ‘big’ movies.
When discussing the back catalogues of the world’s most notable directors people often have an, at best, patchy knowledge of the filmography of even the most well known of directors, but almost without fail people seem to have a wide ranging awareness and indeed history of watching David Fincher films. It seems like out of all the directors in the world more people have a complete sense of Fincher’s body of work than almost anyone else (perhaps second only to QT). When asked, films like Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl With Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl turn out to be virtually ubiquitous in having been devoured by a majority of film goers making a complete picture (knowingly or unknowingly) of Fincher’s back catalogue commonplace. Yes he still has a couple of other films that are outliers from this list but even they are populist fayre that could easily be consumed by this same wide audience. So it is bizarre then that the bulk of his audience, who would be exactly the type of film goer who might struggle with Citizen Kane, are now being confronted by a high profile David Fincher release that tackles the behind the scenes minutiae of the film’s creation.
Fincher’s film concentrates on the creative processes of legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (or Mank) as relates to the creation of the script for Kane. A subject of some contention at the time but nowadays really only a raging debate in the world of the most ardent of cinephiles. It’s clearly a pet subject and long held fascination for Fincher as the script is a long gestating project written by David’s already retired father for his son as a gift back at the time of David’s Alien 3 directorial debut. As such the result is a fascinating take on this much debated story, around which Fincher wraps a more universal set of philosophical questions, ruminations and dilemmas about creativity, politics and morality. These finer points of Mank do only truly come to life if you are familiar with Kane, and both Mank and Kane only truly come alive if you are aware of a good deal of the context surrounding Kane. Mank doesn’t offer context for Kane, it just explores the world of that context, and frankly is a better film for it.
As such Fincher doesn’t waste too much time filling in the blanks for non aficionados of Kane by trying to make some sort of DVD extra companion piece doc, despite some opening titles that are presumably in-part designed to fool studio execs otherwise. What comes of this approach is an exquisitely executed piece of cinema that leaves nothing left to be desired in terms of photography, or production design (that echoes Kane in all the right ways), which rarely falters in its writing and garners handsome performances from its cast (Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance) who even where their turns threaten to be a little on the weak side are so wonderfully wrapped up in this handsome film it could scarcely be noticed. At first Mank attempts to be a little too broad, somewhat slapstick, perhaps even overly self satisfied and you are left wondering if you might be about to witness another disappointingly light weight Hollywood origin story, but the film slowly hits on its rather unusual rhythm (or perhaps you as the viewer settle in to it) and weaves a curious story that explores the details of Mank’s creative ‘process’ from his whisky soaked bed in the Mojave desert whilst tended to by live in nurses. This is set against his past experiences with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his girlfriend actor Marion Davies that inspire and shape the screenplay, as well as informative episodes regarding Mank’s political views and his run ins with studio chief Louis B. Mayer, all of this does a fine job crafting a story that is greater than the sum of these parts.
It’s a curious entry in Fincher’s filmography that has certainly always been relatively cutting edge in its own right but has always been at the very least darkly commercial in it’s overall tone. Mank really isn’t a commercial movie on par with Fincher’s other work and that may well make it age better than say Fight Club or The Social Network which were rather zeitgeisty affairs that seem to date rather quickly. It is no doubt one of Fincher’s best, and unlike some of his other movies it will truly benefit from repeat viewings (other Fincher films suffer from only a fairly hollow type of superficial improvement on return viewings) as you look closer at some of Fincher’s more esoteric metaphysical musings. Despite all the brilliance on display in Mank it goes against Fincher’s general filmography and many people be they knowingly or unknowingly fans of Fincher’s work are going to be confused by it. This is certainly a more personal work by Fincher, which no doubt is a key factor in lifting it above the pack, but it will alienate many in its concern for this particular story. However for those that have already, or are willing to put in the work that allows them to view Citizen Kane in context, Mank will be a rewarding watch which will somewhat replicate Kane’s finest achievement, which is to leave you musing and reassessing it long after the final credits roll. This musing and reassessing in Kane’s case has carried on continuously as an object of endless fascination for some 80 years after its own closing credits, proof positive being a black and white cinematic deep dive into the world of a nearly uncredited screenwriter becoming one of 2021’s biggest releases, from one of the world’s most well known directors.
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