To lay the groundwork of any discussion of David Fincher and his films, I’m tempted to paraphrase the opening voiceover from Gone Girl and imagine what it would be like to unspool the director’s brain in an attempt to get answers. Fincher is known as something of a mastermind; his reputation is that of a perfectionist with an impeccable eye for detail and a blunt disposition that emboldens him to ensure all his demands for precision are carried out. He’s a filmmaker who invites a desire to wonder what makes him tick and to imagine what all the gears must look like as they turn in his mind.
Appropriating the opening lines from Gone Girl would be especially apt in an assessment of Fincher’s latest, Mank, as that film also begins with borrowed lines, those of the director’s father, Jack Fincher. The elder Fincher wrote the script for Mank in the 1990s with the younger Fincher planning to adapt it after The Game in 1997. Those plans fell through. Jack Fincher passed away from cancer in 2003, and seventeen years later, his script has made its way back into his son’s filmography.
Mank, which tracks the exploits and endeavors of the titular Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through the 1930s and leads up to him completing the script for Citizen Kane, opens with the click-clack of a typewriter and text that reads:
EXT. Victorville - Guest Ranch - Day - 1940.
Throughout the film, this motif recurs as a similar text format is used to introduce various locations and dates. These words and their apt connotations of the importance of the screenplay begin what is already being hailed as the most un-Fincher-like film of his career.
Indeed, as much as Mank‘s origins as a film date back over two decades, it does seem to be a curious choice of film for Fincher, who is most known for the thrillers that populate his filmography, from the true-crime chronicles of Zodiac and the Netflix original series Mindhunter to the generation-defining antihero icons of Fight Club and Gone Girl. He has never made a movie about Hollywood or the filmmaking industry, and he doesn’t have a great deal of experience with biopics. And yet, looking past the overt trends in his career, we can find a place for Mank in Fincher’s body of work going back thirty years.
One place to begin is before his thrillers; before his narrative feature films, in fact. Fincher cut his teeth with music videos, most notably several in collaboration with Madonna beginning in 1989. One of these was for “Oh Father,” a semi-autobiographical video inspired by Madonna dealing with her mother’s death when she was five years old. The video begins with a direct reference to Citizen Kane, as a young Madonna plays in the snow, framed by the window of her parents’ house. The film is rich with stylistic allusions to Orson Welles’ film, from the snowy imagery to the stark black and white cinematography. Although conceptually driven by Madonna’s personal experiences, it’s notable that Fincher was the one who convinced her to release it as a single.
Additionally, in arguably the most iconic of their video collaborations, for the song “Vogue,” the references to Old Hollywood are readily apparent. Among the many stars that Madonna namedrops in the lyrics, there’s Marlene Dietrich, the German-American silver screen legend whose notable collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg Madonna has compared to her own collaborations with Fincher. Fittingly, the music video is also shot in black and white, with Madonna often framed, costumed, and lit so as to allude to the actress’s iconography.
While Madonna’s deep admiration for Dietrich was understandably the creative driving force, it’s not fair to entirely count out Fincher’s input. Additionally, the depiction of Madonna at her most playful in the video, with her bleach blonde hair and full, dark lips, is not dissimilar to Amanda Seyfried‘s portrayal of Marion Davies, the snappy Brooklynite actress and mistress to William Randolph Hearst (the real-life inspiration for Charles Foster Kane), as played by Charles Dance in Mank. This is not to suggest that there was any intended homage to Davies present in the music video, but rather an indicator that telegraphing allusions and tributes to the starlets of yore is not new to Fincher, but actually predates his feature filmmaking.
Once Fincher began making movies, it didn’t take long for him to bring a somewhat Kane-esque figure to the big screen. In 1997’s The Game, Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a surly, isolated, uber-rich magnate. Plot-wise, there are notable differences. The film is less a survey of his life and more of a paranoia-heavy thriller about a man trapped in what was sold as the experience of a lifetime but could be a life-ruining scheme.
Still, there are some key images that can’t be overlooked. When Nicholas first visits Consumer Recreation Services, the company that creates “the game,” he undergoes a series of physical and psychological evaluations. In one scene, he sits in a private screening room while images flash on the screen before him. Frustrated by it, Nicholas stands up and stares into the projector, holding his hand up as he’s blinded by the flickering light. It recalls the newsreel sequence in Citizen Kane while also setting up “the game” as a metaphor for filmmaking.
As David Sterritt notes in his essay for the Criterion release of The Game, Nicholas goes through “movielike perils, pitfalls, traps, and tricks.” Coincidences and contrivances come to dominate the world around him as it becomes increasingly unclear what is being set up by CRS to give Nicholas a puzzle to work through and what is there to completely destroy him. Movielogic does indeed come to dominate as all of Nicholas’ experiences are too precise to be left up to chance, and the people he encounters are there to play their roles and set up familiar tropes. Near the end of the film, he directly references The Wizard of Oz as he insists that his goal is to pull back the curtain and to meet the wizard — to both solve the puzzle he’s trapped in and uncover the very mechanisms that allow it to exist.
While The Game is not outwardly about Hollywood, from its script to its striking visuals there are repeated references and allusions to the process of moviemaking. It’s also, in a more up-front manner, a film about fathers and sons. Nicholas’ late father looms large in his life, though he is only glimpsed in flashback. His suicide clouds his son’s faith and provides a path that Nicholas seems to believe he will inevitably follow. More than a decade later, Fincher would return to these parental themes, albeit with a different execution.
Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins with Cate Blanchett’s Daisy on her death bed. She relates to her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), the details of her life, and that of the eponymous and reverse-aging Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who is revealed to be Caroline’s father. As the film unfolds, we learn that Benjamin was abandoned by his own father shortly after his birth. Years later, Benjamin and his father reconnect — the latter is terminally ill and seeks solace and forgiveness from the son he abandoned.
In speaking about the film, Fincher has discussed the many ways that his relationship with his father informed his process. He sees his father in Benjamin’s stoicism and his lack of critical judgment towards others. He’s also spoken about the scenes between Daisy and Caroline, the experience of watching a parent die, and his own grief from his father’s passing.
Any film made about Herman J. Mankiewicz would surely put an emphasis on the importance of a screenwriter, but considering Mank is a film penned by the director’s late father, it’s worth noting the precedent for Fincher making a film that’s informed by his relationship with his father.
Fincher’s follow-up to Benjamin Button came two years later with The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-scripted chronicle of the rise of Facebook and its co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The film filters most of the story through a series of depositions that unpack the contentious claims from various parties regarding the collaborative process of starting the website. To boil it down to somewhat simplistic but not incorrect terms: it’s all about spite.
There’s spite towards ex-girlfriends, ex-friends, ex-business partners, jocks who need to be taken down a peg, investors who need to be taken down several, and a hell of a lot of people in between. That’s the thread that runs through the film, the thing upon which a legacy has been built, and it’s the driving force for a good handful of characters.
It’s also a recurring element in Mank. Mankiewicz, Hearst, and Orson Welles (Tom Burke) all operate on certain levels of pettiness. This can manifest in different ways; throwing weight behind political campaigns, penning screenplays, claiming credit, but it all comes from a similar place. Some of these examples are presented in the film as being far more justified than others, but even with justifications, the film never suggests that taking the high road is a required quality of a hero.
Mank is, of course, not just about spite. It’s about peeling back the glamor of Old Hollywood and laying some truths bare. It’s about the creative process and the very mechanisms of the moviemaking machine. It’s about legacies, those that people create for others and the ones they create for themselves. It’s about celebrating and putting emphasis on the often-underappreciated role of a screenwriter — or, rather, screenwriters. It might seem like a strange choice of film for David Fincher, but unpacking the last three decades’ worth of the director’s collaborations and various projects tells a different story. And isn’t it time for a different story?
See for yourself when Mank hits Netflix on December 4th.