The cornerstone of any discussion about David Fincher and his films, I’m tempted to paraphrase the opening voice of Gone Girl and imagine what it would be like to untangle the director’s brain to get answers. Fincher is known as a mastermind. His reputation is that of a perfectionist with an impeccable eye for detail and a dull disposition that encourages him to ensure that all of his requirements for precision are met. He is a filmmaker who invites the desire to wonder what makes him tick and to imagine what all the gears must look like when they turn in his head.
Appropriating the opening lines of Gone Girl would be particularly suitable for evaluating Fincher’s latest, Deficiencyas this film also begins with borrowed lines from the director’s father, Jack Fincher. The older Fincher wrote the script for Mank in the 1990s, with the younger Fincher planning to adapt it after The Game in 1997. These plans failed. Jack Fincher died of cancer in 2003 and seventeen years later his script found its way back into his son’s filmography.
Mank, who pursues the exploits and aspirations of the title Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) through the 1930s and leads to his finalizing the script for Citizen Kane. It starts with the click of a typewriter and a text that reads:
EXT. Victorville – Guest Ranch – Day – 1940.
This motif repeats itself throughout the film as a similar text format is used to introduce different locations and dates. These words and their apt connotations for the meaning of the script begin what has already been hailed as the most un-fincher-like film of his career.
Just as Mank’s origins as a film go back over two decades, a curious selection of films from the Chronicles of Zodiac and Zodiac seems to Fincher, best known for the thrillers that populate his filmography, the Netflix original series Mindhunter among the generational ones Fight Club and Gone Girl antihero icons. He’s never made a movie about Hollywood or the film industry and he doesn’t have a lot of experience with biographies. And yet, if we look beyond the obvious trends in his career, we can find a place for Mank in Fincher’s work that goes back thirty years.
One place to start is before his thrillers; in fact, before his narrative feature films. Fincher has cut his teeth with music videos, especially several in collaboration with Madonna from 1989. One of them was for “Oh Father,” a semi-autobiographical video inspired by Madonna, who deals with the death of her mother at the age of five. The video begins with a direct reference to Citizen Kane while a young Madonna plays in the snow, framed by the window of her parents’ house. The film is rich in stylistic allusions to Orson Welles’ film, from the snow-covered images to the stark black and white cinematography. Although conceptually driven by Madonna’s personal experiences, it’s noteworthy that Fincher convinced her to release it as a single.
In addition, in what is arguably the most iconic of her video collaborations for the song “Vogue”, the references to Old Hollywood are easy to spot. Among the many stars Madonna named in the lyrics is Marlene Dietrich, the German-American screen legend whose remarkable collaboration with director Josef von Sternberg Madonna has been compared to her own collaboration with Fincher. Fittingly, the music video is also shot in black and white, with Madonna often being framed, costumed, and lit to indicate the actress’ iconography.
While Madonna’s deep admiration for Dietrich was understandably the creative driving force behind it, it’s not fair to count Fincher’s input in full. Additionally, the portrayal of Madonna in her most playful form in the video, with her pale blonde hair and full, dark lips, is not dissimilar Amanda SeyfriedPortrayal of Marion Davies, the vicious Brooklynite actress and lover of William Randolph Hearst (the real inspiration for Charles Foster Kane), played by Charles Dance in Mank. This is not meant to mean that there was an intended homage to Davies in the music video, but rather an indicator that telegraphing allusions and homages to the starlets of the past is not new to Fincher, but actually preceded his feature film.
When Fincher started making films, it wasn’t long before he brought out a somewhat Kane-esque character on screen. In the 1997s The gameMichael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a grumpy, isolated, overbearing magnate. In terms of the plot, there are notable differences. The film is less an overview of his life than a paranoia-heavy thriller about a man trapped in what has been sold as the experience of his life, but could be a life-destroying scheme.
Still, there are some key frames that cannot be overlooked. When Nicholas first visited Consumer Recreation Services, the company that developed “the game,” he underwent a series of physical and mental assessments. In one scene he is sitting in a private screening room while images flash on the screen in front of him. Nicholas stands up in frustration, stares into the projector, and holds up his hand as the flickering light blinds him. It is reminiscent of the newsreel sequence in Citizen Kane and at the same time sets up “the game” as a metaphor for filmmaking.
As David Sterritt noted in his essay for The Game’s Criterion publication, Nicholas goes through “motion-like hazards, pitfalls, traps and tricks.” Coincidences and inventions dominate the world around him as it becomes increasingly unclear what is being set up by CRS to give Nicholas a riddle to work through and what is there to destroy him completely. Movielogic actually dominates as all of Nicholas’ experiences are too precise to be left to chance and the people he encounters are there to play their roles and build familiar tropes. Towards the end of the film, he references The Wizard of Oz directly as he insists that his goal is to pull the curtain back and meet the wizard – to solve both the mystery he’s trapped in and the mechanics uncover that will allow it to exist.
While The Game is not outwardly about Hollywood, there are repeated references and allusions to the process of filmmaking from its script to its eye-catching images. It’s also a film about fathers and sons. Nicholas’ late father plays a huge role in his life, although he can only be seen in one flashback. His suicide tarnishes his son’s faith and offers a path that Nicholas seems to believe he will inevitably follow. More than a decade later, Fincher would return to these parental issues, albeit with a different execution.
Fincher’s 2008 film The strange case of Benjamin Button begins with Cate Blanchett’s Daisy on her deathbed. She tells of her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), the details of her life and that of the retrospective Benjamin (Brad Pitt) of the same name, who turns out to be Caroline’s father. As the film progresses, we learn that Benjamin was abandoned by his own father shortly after he was born. Years later, Benjamin and his father reconnect – the latter is terminally ill and asks the son he has left for comfort and forgiveness.
While talking about the film, Fincher discussed the many ways his relationship with his father affected his process. He sees his father in Benjamin’s stoicism and lack of critical judgment of others. He has also spoken about the scenes between Daisy and Caroline, the experience of seeing a parent die, and his own grief over his father’s death.
Any film about Herman J. Mankiewicz would certainly highlight the importance of a screenwriter, but given that Mank is a film written by the director’s late father, it’s worth noting that Fincher made a film that was about his relationship father is molded to him.
Fincher’s successor to Benjamin Button came along two years later The social network, the Chronicle of the Rise of Facebook written by Aaron Sorkin and its co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). The film filters most of the story through a series of statements that extract the controversial claims made by various parties regarding the collaborative process of launching the website. To reduce it to somewhat simplified but not incorrect terms: it’s all about defiance.
There is defiance to ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, ex-business partners, Scots who have to remove one hook, investors who have to remove several, and a lot of people in between. That’s the thread that runs through the film that a legacy has been built on, and it’s the driving force behind a good handful of characters.
It’s also a recurring element in Mank. Mankiewicz, Hearst, and Orson Welles (Tom Burke) all work with a certain degree of pettiness. This can manifest itself in a number of ways; Throwing weight behind political campaigns, writing scripts, claiming credit, but it all comes from a similar place. Some of these examples are portrayed in the film as far more justified than others, but even with justifications, the film never suggests that driving on the country road is a required trait of a hero.
Of course, Mank is not just about defiance. It’s about peeling back the glamor of Old Hollywood and exposing some truths. It’s about the creative process and the mechanisms of the film machine. It’s about legacies, those who create people for others and those who create them for themselves. It’s about celebrating and emphasizing the often underestimated role of a screenwriter – or rather, a screenwriter. It may seem like an odd film selection to David Fincher, but the unboxing of the director’s collaboration and various projects over the past three decades tells a different story. And isn’t it time for another story?
See for yourself when Mank hits Netflix on December 4th.