Nearly 80 years later Citizen Kane remains the greatest film ever made. And that’s not my opinion, that’s science, as proven by its place at the top of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films, its longevity in Sight & Sound‘s international critics poll (where it spent 40 years at number one before only recently sliding behind Hitchcock’s Veritgo), and by the hundreds of generation-defining filmmakers who cite Kane as a major influence on their own work. Among these filmmakers is David Fincher, whose own father was so enamored by Orson Welles’s debut film that he penned a script focused on the man who collaborated with Welles on Kane‘s script: Herman Mankiewicz. Thus is it that the younger Fincher’s latest film, Mank, serves as tribute to both the greatest film of all time, and one of the people who gave it that title.
Mank is clearly a labor of love for Fincher, so much so that he apparently spent two decades trying to get the project off the ground. It is also a clear stylistic break from the usual cold, procedural tone set in Fincher’s movies, with their muted color palettes and tightly constructed intensity. Instead, Fincher uses every trick available to him to make Mank look and sound like a film somehow unearthed from the 1940s, similar to how Citizen Kane itself was resurrected after being nearly buried upon its initial release. Modern digital tricks recapture the scratch of film, the tinny sound, and even the cigarette burns at the corner of frame marking the change over in reels (a feature I personally learned from another Fincher film). In this sense, Mank is an absolute triumph of modern filmmaking, a marvel of recreation, with Fincher and Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt‘s masterful composition matching the best of the Golden Age of black and white cinema. Even the music, supplied by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, provide intense and yet period-appropriate accompaniment. Yet, despite all the labor towards making Mank feel like a relic of old Hollywood, there are so many ways in which it’s clear this film could never have been made at any other time.
Even with its archaic references, 1940’s bon mots, and depression-era politics, Mank feels more like a 2020 film than almost any other released in this… let’s say unique… year. During much of its first half, Gary Oldman‘s Mank luxuriates in the trappings of Hollywood influence, freewheeling his way through group pitch meetings and proving himself as apt at drinking as he is poor at gambling. Fincher’s staging as well, such as one memorable tracking shot leading Arliss Howard’s Louis B. Mayer as he monologues his way down a hall, recalls the framing of an earlier period of film, until reaching an auditorium where Mayer informs his employees that due to the recent economic downturn their pay will need to be limited, a moment itself recalling America’s own economic suffering during our current global pandemic. Echoing the non-linear structure of Kane, and thousands of other films under its influence, Mank weaves its way out from the blue collar grind of show business and into the far more opulent and yet far more corrupt guts of show business, where the era’s version of the 1% push the era’s version of fake news. From here, Mank feels less like a recreation of old Hollywood and more like a monochrome recap of the build-up to the most recent American election, complete with lily white capital-A Americans supporting the GOP candidate while the other people support the socialist Democrat. While the film’s authenticity may be in question, Mank does make us wonder just how much has changed in the last 80 years, beyond the effort needed to make film look old.
Yet, despite its technical mastery, surprising relevance, outstanding central performance by Gary Oldman, and even greater, career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried, there is something missing from Mank. Whereas the best films of the 1940’s crackled with energy, Mank feels distant and unmotivated. Oldman tosses out witticisms with ease, Seyfried lights up with genuine delight, and their banter feels natural, but there’s little to no drive behind it all. Perhaps this is where my own limited knowledge of the history of Hollywoodland and admitted disdain of nostalgia tinge my perception, but I honestly found the film quite boring. In fact, I needed to stop and rewind on two occasions to catch stretches where I fell asleep, something that wouldn’t have been possible before our modern age of streaming.
The trouble with faithfully capturing a bygone era is that there is little new or fresh to say about it, even when seemingly using that era to comment on events that happened earlier this month. Citizen Kane‘s own influence has so thoroughly permeated the language of cinema that even those unfortunate souls who haven’t seen the film will have recognize its elements, thus re-spinning those elements into a film that mirrors its influence down to its very story beats comes off as kind of redundant. There’s little to no doubt that Mank will be an Oscar nominee, especially for Oldman and Seyfried, and during this… unique… year a likely favorite as it is the exact type of Hollywood criticism and yet aggrandizement that award voters love (just like La La Land and The Artist), but the film can’t stand as an achievement on its own (also just like La La Land and The Artist).
If nothing else, Mank re-establishes the greatness of Mankiewicz and Welles’s achievement in 1941. Fincher is one of the best American filmmakers of his time, a true auteur in the tradition that Welles himself helped to create. Yet even his mastery and 80 years’ worth of technological and artistic developments can’t match the shot-by-shot brilliance of one inexperienced “wiz-kid” who almost, as Mank argues, single-handed defined cinema. Given its place in early cinematic history, and how influential it’s been, it’s doubtful that anything will ever be able to surpass Citizen Kane… except in one aspect.
Citizen Kane‘s only Oscar was for its script. The greatest film ever made did not win Best Picture. The saddest irony would be if Mank, a film wholly dependent on the legacy of Kane, receives the recognition its influence did not.