With ‘Mank,’ David Fincher delivers career-defining film that could finally win him an Oscar

With 11 feature films under his belt, David Fincher is widely regarded as one of the leading directors of his generation, and one of the very best when it comes to tapping into the darker aspects of humanity. He has made a name for himself by presenting complex characters in uncomfortably realistic situations wherein they are forced to grapple with their most primitive emotions. His most well-received film, “The Social Network,” is far from the most harrowing tale in his catalogue, yet demonstrates his trademark style. In the decade since its release, his mostly true account of the creation of Facebook has stood as a lasting examination of toxic masculinity and the power of greed.

His latest film, “Mank,” is much lighter fare by comparison, but conveys a similar message. The film, which started streaming on Netflix last December, painstakingly traces the development of 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” often cited as the greatest film ever made. Fincher works from a script penned by his late father, Jack Fincher, which was originally inspired by critic Pauline Kael’s bold assertion that Herman J. Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, was almost entirely responsible for writing the classic film.  As with “The Social Network,” Fincher uses “Mank” as a way to analyze how and why those who have power over others exercise it. It too transcends the idea that it may or may not be entirely true by revealing a deeper societal commentary.

Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert.com) argues that “the most productive way to look at ‘Mank’… is to understand it as Fincher’s most playful work.” Indeed, the 58-year-old’s status as a lifelong film fan is evident throughout, as is the extensive research he did in order to recreate the distinctive look and sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Kenny further observes that “the staging, shooting and editing here represent Fincher at his most inspired.”

Still, the film is not, as it may seem at times, a love letter to a bygone era. Rather, it is an earnest depiction of how the events of the 1930s negatively influenced the entertainment industry. Ultimately, Fincher follows through on his father’s original vision of Mankiewicz serving as a sharp-witted revelator, whether or not he comes across as especially heroic.

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While Fincher’s artistry speaks for itself, he has always been his own harshest critic. Unhappy making TV commercials in the 1980s, he moved on to directing music videos for the likes of Madonna, Paula Abdul, and George Michael. When his first feature film, 1992’s “Alien 3,” was poorly received, he amped up his effort with each one that followed. He even turned his attention to TV projects (also for Netflix) in the mid-2010s. Now, he has bared his soul with his most personal project. In the words of Aisha Harris (NPR), if one wants to “watch a filmmaker at the top of his craft, ‘Mank’ is a must-see.”

Fincher’s Oscar history consists of just two Best Director bids for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2009 and “The Social Network” in 2011. He lost that first race to Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and the latter to Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”). Both of their films won Best Picture. Currently, he ranks second in our 2021 Best Director race with 9/2 odds, behind only Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”). We predict that “Mank” will compete in a total of 13 Oscar categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Oldman), and Best Original Screenplay.

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