David Fincher has never been fond of supervised creativity. He disowned his debut film, “Alien 3” after overinvolvement and an unfinished script from 20th Century Fox. His pivot to Netflix in the last decade suggests a filmmaker who is simply frustrated with traditional power structures: the first two seasons of “House of Cards” are an acid bath in successful corruption and “Mindhunter” challenges how the arms of the law respond to crime.
It’s no wonder then, that his new Netflix film, “Mank” feels like his most personal yet. Moreover, his late father and magazine writer Jack Fincher wrote the screenplay, giving the film a sense of raw earnesty.
That being said, “Mank” might be the quietest subject matter that David Fincher has ever adapted — the sinusoidal journey of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, “The Laundromat”) from his depths within the Hollywood studio system to his eventual exit and penning of “Citizen Kane.”
All the same, “Mank” attacks like any Fincher movie, and mostly validates its existence in the process. Every cylinder at his disposal fires with surgical precision and this is comfortably one of the strongest ones of the year.
A central delight of “Mank” is watching its protagonist navigate the bustling, enigmatic ’30s Hollywood milieu. Some of the film’s jauntiest scenes happen here, executives and writers bantering and breezing around ornate offices and production sets and ballroom tables. Their heads are too big for their own good, but no one seems to care.
Amid this sea of people who think they’re the smartest in the room, Mank never fades. This is partly due to Oldman’s performance, which is scorchingly witty but so composed that he anchors himself in the verbal and literal chaos. These bouts of dialogue recall “The Social Network” in the snappy way Fincher shoots them.
One of the film’s strengths is revelling in that dynamism while reflecting on how ideas can cannibalize themselves. Sometimes the price of self-advocacy is drowning another’s voice out, a paradox highlighted by studio Metro Goldwyn-Mayer’s repeated requests that writers be “team-players.”
Fincher’s mediation on how the Hollywood system can transform and dampen promising ideas isn’t as psychologically probing as his typical fare, but it might be equally dour. In particular, media magnate and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, “Game of Thrones”) hangs over the movie like a wolfish specter, and Mank’s confrontations with him bring the ideas to an abrupt close.
Hearst also emerges as a key figure in the political musings of “Mank.” Social critic Upton Sinclair’s (whose actor is a cameo so surprising I refuse to spoil it here) gubernatorial campaign against the Hollywood-backed GOP establishment is one of the most fascinating strands of the film. I couldn’t help but relish in its connections to “Network,” another story of media executives learning of and abusing the power of their bully pulpits. But Mank himself more closely resembles a character like Liev Shriber’s Marty Baron of “Spotlight,” both of whom are outsiders who question institutional norms merely because they are the status quo. Hollywood’s then-opposition to socialism is a little laughable now, given that Sinclair’s novel “Oil” has since been adapted into one of most acclaimed movies of the 21st century.
Though “Mank” certainly has its meandering threads, subplots about Mankiewietcz’s amanuensis Rita Ford (Lily Collins, “Emily in Paris”) and test shot director Shelly Metalf (“Nightcrawler”), the film more than compensates for them.
David Fincher’s latest project appears to be such a departure from his previous oeuvre, but “Mank” will similarly require several viewings to fully understand. And the prospect of revisiting this film until it’s burned itself into my brain is beyond tantalizing.
Daily Film Editor Anish Tamhaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.