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‘Mank,’ An Intergenerational Biopic, Finally on the (Home) Big Screen

Gary Oldman stars as Herman “Mank” J. Mankiewicz in "Mank" (2020), directed by David Fincher.
Gary Oldman stars as Herman “Mank” J. Mankiewicz in "Mank" (2020), directed by David Fincher. By Courtesy of Netflix
By Lance R. He, Contributing Writer

At long last, after a six year absence from the silver screen, David Fincher returns to the director’s chair with his widely anticipated film “Mank.” Fincher’s celebrated filmography spans masterpieces like “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “The Social Network.” In "Mank," Fincher brings back much of his ensemble crew, including production designer Donald Graham Burt, editor Kirk Baxtor, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — so expect his signature style and power in his latest film.

Fincher’s pronounced absence from the big screen isn’t the only streak that will end with "Mank"'s release. “Mank” itself has toiled in production hell for over 20 years. Since Fincher’s now-late father Howard “Jack” Fincher drafted its screenplay, multiple studios have picked up, stalled, and dropped “Mank” from their production cycles. Fincher's insistence on shooting in black and white was a key contributing factor for this purgatory. However, Fincher's luck turned following the critical success of Alfonso Cuarón's black and white Netflix-produced “Roma.” The streaming giant later found confidence in greenlighting ambitious films from auteurs, including Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story," and most recently, Fincher's "Mank."

In spite of the go-ahead, Fincher can’t seem to catch a break from controversy. At one point in the film's production, he even considered casting Kevin Spacey in the lead role. From tackling Facebook with all its ethical dilemmas of privacy rights to disowning a critically divisive "Aliens 3" to incorporating gratuitous gore in "Seven," Fincher has walked a fine line treading between both sides sensitive issues in the film world. "Mank" is no different: It captures the heated half-century debate over which screenwriter of Orson Welles' debut masterpiece "Citizen Kane" deserves primary credit — the titular Herman “Mank” J. Mankiewicz or the boy-wonder director Orson Welles himself.

In 1971, through two consecutive issues of the New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael published “Raising Kane.” The 50,000-word essay explored the creation of "Citizen Kane"'s screenplay, and praised Mankiewicz as the script’s mastermind while criticizing Welles for his meager contributions. Mainstream press welcomed Kael's article, but many critics — with Welles's close friend Peter Bogdanovich at their helm — fought against Kael's assertions. Bogdanovich cited a lack of evidence, and pointed to how Kael herself stole credit from UCLA faculty Howard Suber. Kael’s essay turned out to be heavily influenced by Mankiewicz’s own friend John Houseman. Both narratives were hotly contested, yet it was team Welles that came out on top — where it remains today. When “Mank” finally releases, viewers will see Fincher’s perspective first-hand, and the controversy will inevitably be revived once more.

"Mank" marks the first film where Fincher serves as both director and producer. The film comprises a star-studded lineup with Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz himself, Tom Burke as Welles, and Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins as Marion Davies and Rita Alexander. Co-producer Eric Roth — who wrote “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the latter of which Fincher directed — will imbue his own quirks and humorous style.

Although Fincher has shrouded many details about his film in secrecy, he has also proven that he knows how to handle a biopic. In “The Social Network,” Fincher depicted the creation of Facebook through the eyes of its founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. An audio-visual masterpiece, the 2010 film related the universal experiences of triumph and emptiness, and brought the start-up craze to mainstream culture. Ten years later, Fincher’s “Mank” gives the director another chance to showcase his abilities in classic Fincher fashion: by affecting millions from behind the camera. When it is finally released, all eyes will be on “Mank.”

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