Recently, we’ve seen a lot of movies about the making of another great fictional work (Saving Mr. Banks, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Man Who Invented Christmas, and so on). We’ve also seen quite a few movies made about the Tinseltown of yesteryear (Hail Caesar!, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Judy, Trumbo, etc.).
But the thing about these two subgenres is that while they tend to attract major Oscar-level talent, they haven’t seen much Oscar-level success or staying power. And then there’s tonight’s picture.
The screenplay for Mank is credited solely to Jack Fincher, who’s been dead since 2003. The film was directed by his son, David Fincher, who hasn’t made a movie since Gone Girl in 2014. There’s clearly a lot of baggage to unpack there, and we haven’t even started on the movie yet.
The title refers to Herman Mankiewicz (here immortalized by Gary Oldman), the theatre critic turned playwright turned screenwriter who won an Oscar alongside Orson Welles himself (here played by Tom Burke) as the screenwriters for Citizen Kane.
(Side note: With the advent of talking pictures, Hollywood figured out quick that they needed to hire writers with experience in crafting dialogue to be spoken by actors and heard by an audience. In the 1930s, a lot of playwrights were hired to move west and come write for the movies.)
I might also add that Mankiewicz was the first of ten writers on The Wizard of Oz (also the first to suggest switching from black-and-white to color on that movie) and got no credit on the finished picture. In fact, the question of who deserves the most credit for writing Citizen Kane has been a subject of blazing controversy since before the film was even shot. Not for nothing, the Screen Writers Guild (precursor to the WGA) had only formed as a union less than a decade prior.
Anyway, the film presupposes that Mank wrote the lion’s share of Citizen Kane, coming up with the original story, the characters, and the entire first draft before Welles came in with his notes and revisions. (This version of events has been widely discredited by modern historians, but whatever.) The film proceeds to chronicle Mank’s time writing the initial draft while flashing back to the events that inspired the film’s creation.
Alas, the movie is a very slow burn. Sure, it’s unquestionably an entertaining and well-made film, with dialogue that flies right off the page and sardonic unhinged characters who were always interesting to watch. It also helps that we’ve got such incredible actors as Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Tuppence Middleton, Sam Troughton, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard… you probably don’t even know half of those names, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single performance in this cast is pure gold. Of course, it helps that this is a David Fincher picture, and precious few directors in the biz are so famously adept at casting.
Yet as much as I enjoyed watching these actors getting put through their paces, I had a difficult time getting invested in the story. In fact, through most of the movie, there didn’t seem to be much of a story at all. Half an hour in, I still had no idea what the stakes were, what the conflict or crisis was supposed to be, or why we kept flashing back to so many wildly different and apparently unconnected scenes.
But then I remembered a few crucial points.
- Citizen Kane is one of the most thoroughly studied movies in cinema history. For the past eighty years and counting, everyone from amateur cinephiles to tenured professors have written about the film at great length, examining the movie’s context, its influences, its history, and everything else about the picture from every conceivable angle.
- Citizen Kane is a movie about the rise and fall of a newspaper mogul/politician who chases after all the money and power and adulation he can muster, in a vain attempt at feeding his insatiable appetite for love and emotional fulfillment.
- It’s commonly accepted that the movie is a fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hearst, who was (and probably still is) one of the wealthiest and most politically influential figures in American history.
- Mank was a friend and colleague of fellow screenwriter Charles Lederer, who was nephew to Marion Davies, who was in turn Hearst’s mistress. Hearst was also closely aligned with Louis B. Mayer at a time when Mank was a staff writer for MGM. There’s no question that Mank and Hearst knew each other personally.
Put it all together and maybe — maybe — you’ll start to realize what a rabbit hole this movie is.
Through most of the picture, we’re treated to one scene after another, portraying how Louis B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst (here respectively played by Arliss Howard and Charles Dance) routinely swindled and screwed over everyone from their own employees to the entire state of California. As the film unfolds, we see Mayer get his company through the Great Depression by halving the salaries of his employees. We see Mayer and Hearst influence an election through the proliferation of false media and misinformation. We watch their efforts at rigging an election for the corporate-friendly Republican, branding the Democrat nominee as an un-American socialist.
Thus the filmmakers use the origin story of Citizen Kane to make a political commentary on our own modern times. I’ll remind you that Jack Fincher wrote this script in the ’90s before he died in freaking 2003. It’s a shame he died before writing anything else, because he must’ve been goddamn Nostradamus!
More to the point, there did eventually come a time when I finally connected the dots and realized where the movie was going with all of this. It’s so subtle that I don’t know if I could point to any particular moment when the penny dropped and I realized that all these real-life Machiavellian maneuvers directly inspired one of the greatest films ever made. I only know that during the climax — when Mank is detailing the plot to Citizen Kane in a drunken angry rant, insulting Hearst directly to his face — it hit powerfully hard in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without those two hours of setup.
Because remember, Hearst was alive to see Citizen Kane debut. Everyone in Hearst’s inner circle got to see themselves reflected as supporting characters in the story of Charles Foster Kane. Many of them probably didn’t like their portrayals by the pen of their good buddy Mank, and a lot of them had significant pull in politics and in the movie industry. That’s a lot for Mank to consider.
On the other hand, Mank was a compulsive gambler and a notorious alcoholic. He wrote the movie at the age of 45, and he died of renal failure a decade later. The man was in terrible health and he had to have known it at the time. So, weighing his future prospects against the prospect of not being alive in the near future, where’s the harm in burning so many bridges?
There’s a lot of heavy stuff to mull over in this film, but it’s neatly balanced with effective comic relief and more personal storylines. One example concerns Mrs. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), hired to write dictation and type the script while Mank is in bed with a broken leg. Mrs. A is also deceptively wise for her age and doesn’t take any of Mank’s shit, particularly with regards to his blatant dishonesty and his alcoholic hijinks. Hilarity ensues.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Mank’s wife (commonly referred to as “Poor Sara”, played by Tuppence Middleton). She’s another character who gives as good as she gets, nicely holding her own against Mank’s rapier wit. We’ve also got Marion Davies, played here by Amanda Seyfried. Of course Mank and Davies are both spoken for, so their relationship is strictly platonic, but the chemistry between them is delightful nonetheless. There’s also Mank’s younger brother (Joseph Mankiewicz, here played by Tom Pelphrey) — as another accomplished screenwriter, he might just be the only one who can talk with Mank on his level.
Then we have the visuals. And I’m not just talking about the black-and-white presentation — no effort was spared in making this look like an old-fashioned film, right down to the burn marks. Compare that to the likes of Hail Caesar! and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, both of which were shot in glorious color. The difference is that the latter films portray the Tinseltown of yesteryear with a kind of rose-tinted nostalgia, while the black-and-white camerawork provides a far less compromising view of the past. It’s quite clever, really.
Seriously, this is a movie about Citizen Kane that doesn’t go out of its way to portray the finished picture as a masterpiece, nor does it glamorize Orson Welles as the greatest auteur who ever lived. Who else in all the industry would dare to make such a film?
Which brings me to a rather important problem: The target audience. On the one hand, anyone who isn’t familiar at all with Citizen Kane won’t appreciate the stylistic choices or narrative structures made in imitation of Welles’ actual film. On the other hand, anyone who really knows and loves Citizen Kane might be upset with the numerous historical inaccuracies and artistic liberties made to shoehorn the real life events into something that could serve as a modern-day commentary. And when one of those liberties is a suicide that never really happened, that’s… well, it’s problematic to say the least.
Mank certainly isn’t a bad movie. It’s superbly acted, well-made, and it’s perfectly obvious that everyone in the cast and crew put a ton of effort and passion into the project. But the film is such a slow burn that it may put off a lot of viewers, and the ones who stick around may not like the payoff. This was very specifically made for people who are familiar with Citizen Kane, but not enough to care about the historical inaccuracies, and they don’t mind yet another historical movie that’s actually about circumstances in the present day.
It’s definitely not worth getting a Netflix account for, but if you’ve already got one, it’s worth checking out just to see Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, and David Fincher’s craftsmanship.