Watch Out, Oscars: David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ Looks Like a Monster Contender

Could Fincher’s period drama be nominated in the same nine categories as “Citizen Kane,” the film that inspired it?

AWARDS BEAT

Now that Netflix has begun to allow sneak peeks at “Mank,” David Fincher’s drama about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of “Citizen Kane,” it’s clearer than ever that the film will be a major player at the 93rd Academy Awards. A sumptuous black-and-white evocation of Golden Age Hollywood, it ticks lots of Oscars boxes and is a work of craftsmanship at the highest level, which is hardly surprising coming from the director of “The Social Network,” “Fight Club” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” among others.

Even in a normal year, when it would have to compete against the usual array of studio-backed movies, “Mank” might well have emerged as one of the most-nominated films at the Oscars; in the pandemic-wracked 2020, with theaters closing and major-studio films like “West Side Story” and “Dune” fleeing for the presumably safer pastures of late 2021, it feels like a monster.

Reviews are embargoed until Nov. 6, so TheWrap will weigh in with more detailed thoughts about the film at that point. Suffice it to say that “Mank” is dense, pleasurable and a kick (albeit a challenging kick) for anybody interested in Hollywood history.

It will need to find viewers and voters who are very interested in that history, and willing to follow a wide variety of characters through a meandering, flashback-heavy structure. But Hollywood has always been fond of movies about itself — so from an awards standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that “Mank” won’t be an Oscars heavyweight. At this point I’d consider it a potential front runner in a number of categories, including cinematography, film editing, art direction, original score and maybe even picture and director.

With a look that captures classic Hollywood, it’s a showcase for the categories devoted to visuals. Driven by a predictably virtuoso performance by Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, it’s a likely slam dunk with the Academy’s Actors Branch. And at a time when the Best Director award typically goes to a virtuoso, auteur-driven accomplishment — the last five winners being “Parasite,” “Roma,” “The Shape of Water,” “La La Land” and “The Revenant” — Fincher has to be at the top of the list, along with ChloĆ© Zhao for the more understated “Nomadland.”

“Mank” probably won’t be Fincher’s most-nominated film, because his 2008 drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” cleaned up in the below-the-line categories and landed 13 nominations. But it could well equal or even surpass the eight nominations that 2010’s “The Social Network” received.

The wildest outcome, and one that’s a distinct possibility, is that it could be nominated in the exact same nine categories in which “Citizen Kane” was nominated: picture, director, actor, art direction, cinematography, film editing, musical score, sound and screenwriting. The Academy even cooperated to make that match possible early this year when it combined what had been two sound categories into one, just as the Oscars had in 1941 when “Kane” was eligible.

(The difference: In ’41, the category was called Best Sound Recording; in ’20, it’s just Best Sound, the result of the merging of Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.)

“Mank” clearly stands out in most of the “Kane” categories, from the design categories to film editing (it jumps around in time, which always helps) and musical score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross put their own spin on the sound of classic Hollywood). The film’s achievement in sound is subtler, but Netflix is already working to get out the narrative that the audio track has been manipulated to give it the feel of watching a film in an old theater.

The biggest threats to an exact match are that “Kane” wasn’t nominated for its costumes, an area in which “Mank” is likely to be a formidable contender; and that Orson Welles’ lead performance provided the original film’s only acting nomination, whereas Amanda Seyfried will certainly be a contender for playing Marion Davies in “Mank,” particularly with a couple of standout scenes late in the film. (Other standouts in the crack ensemble cast include Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst and Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, but in a Supporting Actor category crowded with larger performances, they may have trouble getting enough traction.)

As for Oldman, the film will likely vault him to the top ranks of Best Actor contenders, where he’ll face stiff competition from Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” and, presumably, Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Tom Hanks in “News of the World.”

It also helps that the film plays so well on a small screen, where the vast majority of voters will see it. While I’d love to watch it in a big movie palace, I’ve seen it twice on my TV and don’t feel the least bit unsatisfied. Unlike “Tenet” — which virtually demands a huge screen to help blast away thoughts of “what they hell are they talking about?” — the distinct pleasures of “Mank” should be readily apparent in whatever format voters have.

It’s true that the structure can be a bit labyrinthine and none of the major characters in the film are exactly likeable, with the possible exception of Davies, which could be a problem with some voters. Also, because the film works so hard to feel like the movies of the era it depicts, “Mank” might be dismissed by others as a genre exercise. Still, attentive viewers will likely see it as something far more singular than that.

One other stumbling block could arise as campaigns heat up: The film’s storyline more or less follows Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane,” a 50,000-word 1971 essay in which the celebrated critic gave most of the credit for the film’s achievements to Mankiewicz rather than Welles. Kael’s version of the story has come under intense scrutiny over the years, and she’s been widely attacked both for dubious scholarship and for distorting events. But the “Mank” screenplay, which was written by Fincher’s father, Jack, before his death in 2003, was more recently revised to make it less hostile to Welles — which, perhaps, moves it further from Kael’s take and cushions it from some of the criticism “Raising Kane” received.

Anyway, it seems appropriate that a film about “Citizen Kane,” the movie that publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst tried to destroy because the central character was a little too much like him, might make a few enemies of its own along the way.

Of course, there’s one more warning sign for “Mank” — if it does manage to be nominated in all the same categories as “Citizen Kane,” Fincher and Netflix should probably try to forget about the fact that the nine nominations for “Kane” resulted in only one win, for the screenplay by Mankiewicz and Welles.