David Fincher’s Mank is only about the making of one cinema’s greatest achievements Citizen Kane in a limited fashion. Its plot line is a disputed one in which the picture’s cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) takes the vast lions share of the credit for creating the masterpiece. This falls in direct contradiction with what some historians have said. There has been a decades long debate as to whether Mankiewicz or director/producer/star Orson Welles was the magic behind the scenes. And there’s no doubt that some viewers could be upset with what Mank is and is not about.
As for this viewer, I often marveled at it. This is David Fincher’s first feature in over six years and it’s a pleasure to have him back behind the camera. The screenplay is from the director’s late father. While it certainly falls more on the side of Mank being the force behind the landmark 1941 production, I found myself wrapped up in its stunning production values and dynamic performances. In other words, the debate of Kane‘s credit can be left to scholars. I was left mostly enthralled by the overall experience.
To say Mank is a movie for cinephiles is not inaccurate. A passing knowledge of the history of Citizen Kane is helpful. An understanding of California politics in the 1930s doesn’t hurt either. Oldman’s Mank is a rather young man when we first see him in 1940. The actor playing him is in his sixties while his subject is about 20 years younger. For those who believe that’s a stretch, I invite you to look at photos of Mankiewicz at that time period. He looked beyond his years due to severe alcoholism as he was climbing the Tinsel Town ladder with his brilliant words.
By 1940, he’s known around town as much for his boorish behavior as his screenplays. He’s laid up due to an auto accident when the new boy wonder from Hollywood Orson Welles (Tom Burke, nailing the legend’s vocal patterns) calls him with an offer. Mank gets working on a massive manuscript that draws on his past experiences. The caveat is that Mank will not receive credit for his contribution. The writer dictates his words to two assistants at a California ranch with his leg in cast. One is Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and part of her duties is keeping Mank away from the hard liquor that serves as his liquid fuel. This job also falls to Orson’s right hand man John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and, less occasionally, to Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton). Everyone refers to her as “Poor Sara” (including her spouse) because just dealing with his personality is a full time occupation.
As he toils away at his pages, the flashbacks begin a decade earlier. In 1930, Mank makes the acquaintance of starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). They hit it off and she soon brings him into the uber-wealthy universe of her older flame, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Hearst takes a liking to our title subject partly because he’s good entertainment to be around and always has a witty quip at the ready.
In 1934, Mank’s connections with the titans of industry coincide with the political scene. The gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair and his socialist Democratic policies has studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, in a memorable performance) spooked. Hollywood was far less liberal in these days, you see. MGM implements extraordinary measures to get their candidate elected and that involves their massive make believe factory usually dedicated to Civil War epics and Munchkins. Mank does not approve of these tactics that are ultimately green lit by Mr. Hearst.
These developments are what shape Mank’s screenplay years later as the characters in the eventual Kane treatment resemble both Hearst and Marion. Mank, more than anything, is about what drives the writing process. It’s about how one’s demons and one’s tragedies and shortcomings can result in something special on the page. As we watch the events unfold that result in Kane, we do so in sumptuous black and white with gorgeous cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt. Fincher has fashioned this to look like it was made in early 1940s and he certainly succeeds.
Mank is the latest reminder of Oldman’s ability to disappear into a performance. When he finally works up the nerve to (very) drunkenly confront Hearst at a lavish dinner party concerning the political drama, it’s a sight to behold. This is due to the acting of its lead, as well as Dance’s Hearst and Seyfried’s Marion. Any sequence with Mank and Marion is a fascinating one with their complicated relationship. It might be the most honest one he has.
Returning to historical accuracy, I’m reminded that it’s not particularly my business. Whether Mankiewicz or Welles raised Kane from the start is an enduring mystery. The director and his father present a side here. It’s certainly one Mank would cheers to. It is one that hardcore movie lovers also should.
***1/2 (out of four)