In Citizen Kane, the life of Charles Foster Kane is sought to be defined by meaning of one word, “Rosebud”. David Fincher looks to understand and define the making of “the greatest film of all-time” through one word… Mank.
David Fincher’s first film since 2014’s Gone Girl is from a script by his father Jack Fincher that rexamines 1930s/40s Hollywood through the black and white lens of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane.
One of the main inspirations’ behind the film is Pauline Kael’s Raising Kane. An essay she wrote for the New Yorker that controversially argued that Welles was not responsible for the screenplay. Mankiewicz was the sole writer.
The audience first meet Makiewicz, or “Mank”, as he is washed up, broken (literally, he is recovering from a broken leg), alcoholic who accepts an uncredited job to write a screenplay for Orson Welles.
One would expect, given that his name is all over the film, that Welles would be a major presence. However just as Mank would say about the writing of the film, the majority of the 132 minute runtime is spent “in the absence of Orson Welles”.
For those looking for Mank to be “the making of Citizen Kane” movie, they are likely to be disappointed. The Disaster Artist it is not.
There are moments that are homages to the seminal film; a shot of Mank passed out dropping a glass in the style of Kane dropping the snow globe or Welles’s vicious tantrum becoming the inspiration for Kane destroying Alexander’s room after she leaves him.
However, similar to how OUATIH was a film about Hollywood in the 60s molded around the Manson murders, Mank is a look at and commentary on Hollywoodland in the 30s. All wrapped up in the snow globe of Kane.
Just as Tarantino evoked the feeling of the Sixties, Fincher has perfectly recreated the monochromatic aesthetic of the studio system. Even going as far as adding in Tyler Durden’s cigarette burns to the digital print.
If there is a cost to the technical excellence, it is that the film feels rather cold. This coldness extends to the character of Mank. Gary Oldman delivers a great performance, as one would expect, but this flawed personality is one that at times is difficult to root for. Particularly in his dealings with his wife “Poor Sara” and his screenplay’s treatement of Heart’s muse and “squeeze” Marion Davies (a luminscent Amanda Seyfried).
If Marion was Susan Alexander, Hearst/Kane and Louis B. Mayer/Bernstein, then who is Mank himself? Could he have written himself into the script as Jed Leland? Leland is Kane’s friend and confidante who finds himself at odds with the magnate and cast aside following a bitter, drunken outburst. That is true of Mankiewicz with both Hearst and Welles.
This is showcased in two spellbinding scenes where a drunken Mank regales Hearst at a party he is hosting with the plot of the film he will write about him and then when he confronts Welles to demand a writing credit for “the best thing I’ve ever written”.
With Kane, there was the Rosebud mystery that drove the narrative forward. Here, there is no mystery. Instead the film plays out like putting together one of Susan Alexander’s jigsaw puzzles. If you are familiar with the story, you already have the pieces and you know how to put it together. If you have not seen the finished article, the experience may prove slightly underwhelming and a bit of slog.
Just like Charles Foster Kane and the film about him, ultimately Mank is something that is much easier to be admired than loved.
Mank is available to stream on Netflix from 4 December.
Director: David Fincher
Stars: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Burke, Charles Dance
Runtime: 132 minutes