Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane, which some have called the greatest film of all-time, is not one that’s easy to grasp. A quasi-biographical account of the rise and fall of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the movie shows how the titular Kane, once the most powerful man in America, ultimately succumbs to his own self-sensationalism and thus desensitization of the media, to the point where the public could no longer tell exaggeration from the truth.
Citizen Kane, in the end, becomes a metaphor for defining Kane’s legacy as it devolves from mythology into little more than the shallowness of his worldly possessions, a futility beautifully summed up by the film’s most famous – and poignant – deathbed utterance.
But David Fincher’s Mank isn’t about Orson Welles. Not really. In fact, the iconic filmmaker is only in a handful of scenes. Mank is about Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the screenwriter for Citizen Kane. However, the film doesn’t stray far from its progenitor. With some parallels, both obvious and subtle, Mank utilizes its source as contrast just as much as it does for inspiration.
Like Welles’ film, Mank has much to unpack and isn’t one you can fully absorb upon initial viewing. Deep diving into the ins and outs of 1940s Hollywood, and the gubernatorial race in California at the time, the story jumps back and forth between the title character working on the script for Citizen Kane in 1940 and what led to his outcast from Hollywood in the decade prior.
Fincher took a script written by his late father, Jack, in the 1990s, which follows Mankiewicz, purported as actually the sole screenwriter of Citizen Kane, despite sharing screen credit with Welles. Film critic Pauline Kael once wrote an essay (on which Jack Fincher’s original script was inspired by), nearly 20 years after Mankiewicz’ death, accusing Welles of stealing authorship of the script. David Fincher never really takes a definitive side regarding the case. While his father’s screenplay was originally more anti-Welles, those sentiments have been reworked and toned down for the final movie.
David Fincher isn’t someone who necessarily has this cerebral understanding of the emotional capabilities of cinema, someone like Sam Mendes or Ang Lee, and at times that shows. And admittedly he’s not the guy you would pin to direct this movie about the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Fincher is a technical filmmaker with a knack for unique narratives, much like Welles himself, and when you really think about it, is just the kind of director a Citizen Kane semi-biopic needs.
At the time of Citizen Kane’s conception in 1940, American movies were still consumed with linearity, afraid of the unorthodox, not only on a directorial level but within their foundation. Mankiewicz, in the sunset of his career, was hired by Welles, a young and upcoming theater and radio producer who was given full creative control by RKO, to pen his first picture. Mank, who had recently suffered injuries in an automobile accident, is given just 60 days to come up with a script, dictated to his secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), who later transcribes it on a typewriter.
Unlike most biopics where we learn about a subject perhaps for the first time ever, Mank isn’t for those unfamiliar with the source; having seen Citizen Kane prior to watching this film isn’t just required, but essential to fully appreciate what Mank is attempting.
It’s critical to have seen Citizen Kane prior to watching this film to better understand what’s going on. It also helps to be familiar with the context of 1930s Hollywood in order to fully appreciate what this complex story is trying to do, especially as its flooded with in-jokes and Easter eggs for film fans and historians alike. For better or worse, the movie’s nuance lies on its surface, which makes it much more esoteric for the common audience. Moreover, Fincher doesn’t take the time to explain things that don’t matter to him, even though it only ends up distancing his film from a big chunk of its viewers.
From Mank’s retreat house in 1940 where he’s working on his script, we’re sent back to the early ’30s during the days of the writer’s tenure at Paramount Studios where he was very much a valued asset.
We leap back and forth between 1940 and the previous decade, taken through Mankiewicz’ career and his relationships with various producers and higher-ups, ultimately leading to his demise.
It’s only natural to compare Mank’s story with the titular Kane’s. The screenwriter’s relationship with Hearst drives the plot more than any other as Hearst, who at one time took a great liking to Mank, ultimately serves as the epitome of everything Mank hates about the industry. Mankiewicz slowly begins to uncover a smear campaign by MGM, funded by Hearst, against Upton Sinclair, one of the candidates for governor.
Strangely enough, Fincher is also able to draw parallels between the strange case of Kael’s “Raising Kane” essay and the political elements of the film. When arguments in the media are constantly being spun and sympathy is being cultivated in the most unlikely of places, and the public is constantly being used as a pawn in a game of trickery versus integrity, you never know who to believe. When film–a medium built around skewing perspectives and evoking emotion–comes in and slyly forces opinions on those willing to view it (aka everyone) by masking them as facts, finding the truth can be downright impossible, especially during the Great Depression when promise of opportunity and protection were too valuable to risk.
In an industry full of phonies, Herman Mankiewicz is a man who sees through all the BS. By the time he gets the opportunity to write Citizen Kane, Mank decides that Hearst has had enough control over who wins and loses, deciding to put his own spin on things.
Mank, together with Citizen Kane, is the perfect example of life imitating art, or anti-mimesis. Oscar Wilde once postulated that this idea “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” A large part of the enigma of Mankiewicz and Welles’ film all those years ago is how gray it made the line between fantasy and reality; what’s real and what’s fake, using the invention, or at the very least the widespread popularity, of sensationalism by Hearst to treat its subject in the very same way.
Here in Fincher’s picture it’s used once again, but in a slightly tangential way. What’s even stranger is that in a world where we yearn to sensationalize every story – defining them, if you will – we only come to realize, if we’re lucky, that we had the answers the whole time, if only we stopped for a minute to think for ourselves.
Oldman nails the emotion behind his role for all intents and purposes, but the performance doesn’t always feel consistent within itself. It’s difficult to pin down Mank’s personality, which might be the more realistic take, but also not one that necessarily lends itself well to a story of this breadth. Unfortunately, much like Citizen Kane (strangely enough), one of the film’s biggest weaknesses is how the fluidity of and pacing behind the development of our title character doesn’t quite match the depth created for him and the investment that’s been built up for us. We connect to Mankiewicz, but there is just so much here to digest that we begin viewing the movie on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one.
Everyone around Oldman is superb and the strength of the acting is somehow found in the supporting cast. Charles Dance is so precise as Hearst, the stone-faced alpha, that his eyes provide us with both fear and comfort at the very same time. Amanda Seyfried finds her stride immediately as Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies, the naive young starlet who just might be wiser than she comes off.
In fact, everyone in this film is incredibly wise and witty. Jack Fincher’s screenplay is flooded with jazzy repartee and characters who alway know the most clever thing to say at any given moment. It’s almost written like a movie from the ’40s. However, Mank can often be difficult to follow. Not only is the content frustratingly arcane at times, but Fincher’s turn of phrase can be relentlessly confusing, almost as though he prides himself on the shop talk.
Accompanying the black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (an artistic decision that prevented Fincher from getting this movie made in the ’90s) is a sound design that seems to mic up the actors as though they’re filming a movie in the 1940s. The director also inserts some fun allusions to Citizen Kane, such as the bottle rolling out of Mank’s hand as he lies unconscious in bed, symbolizing the famous snow globe, no doubt. Or the light coming through the horizontal blinds shining on the men’s faces in the boardroom. And then there’s the incessant use of low angles.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the counterpoint between Mank and Hearst, summed up brilliantly in a masterful soliloquy by Oldman comparing the infamous tycoon to Don Quixote. Hearst lived his life valuing power over people, lusting for them to love him so he can gain his power. He surrounded himself with people who pretended they loved him for the sake of his approval, which, ultimately, proved futile since those who feigned their love knew deep down who Heart was, leading to his demise.
Citizen Kane sympathizes with Hearst a great deal, and Mank almost gets there too, but stops short. After all, this is a film about a man who refused to play the game because he couldn’t care less about the approval of others. He was ostracized from this industry, if not for his antithetical political beliefs, than for his belligerent alcoholism and sharp tongue. However, in the end, he got the ultimate approval. The reward was much smaller, but so were his ambitions. He wasn’t necessarily a happy man, content with his life, but compared to Hearst even at his highest point, Herman Mankiewicz was Jiminy Cricket.
It took a man shunned by an entire industry, hired by another who had full creative control and the ballsiness to do such a thing, to make Hollywood’s Greatest Film, unhinged by standards and changing cinema forever. Fincher’s Mank is almost too deep at times, practically requiring multiple viewings to appreciate fully. However, you can do so with the joy knowing you’ll always notice something new the next time around – much like its progenitor. The dynamics set into play, along with its technical prowess, not only allow this film to stand on its own as a beautiful piece of cinema, but evolve it into a companion piece to Citizen Kane as well.