In 1939 24-year-old hotshot wunderkind Orson Welles was heavily courted by a struggling RKO Pictures. The studio signed Welles to a two-picture deal and gave him complete creative control including final cut privilege, something unheard of in the studio era. Welles began putting the idea together for what would become “Citizen Kane”. To help with the script Welles hired Herman J. Mankiewicz, a boozy, self-destructive and self-defined loose cannon believed by many in Hollywood to be washed up. Mankiewicz ended up winning an Academy Award for what many argue is the greatest film ever made.
In David Fincher’s “Mank” the acclaimed filmmaker both celebrates and admonishes Hollywood’s Golden Age through the character of Herman Mankiewicz, honing in on his time wrestling with his version of the “Citizen Kane” script. Fincher uses the same time-hopping techniques as Welles’ 1941 classic to visit key moments from Mankiewicz’s past which helped inspire and form pivotal elements of “Kane’s” story. “Mank” was originally conceived by David Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher who was inspired by Pauline Kael’s 50,000 word essay “Raising Kane” published in 1971.
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The opening shot feels plucked straight out of old Hollywood. It’s 1940. Two cars speed down a dusty California highway on their way to North Verde Ranch near Victorville. There Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), bed-ridden with a broken leg following a car accident, sets up shop. He is given sixty days (originally 90 until Welles cut off a month) to complete his draft under the supervision of John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Helping is Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a lightning fast British stenographer with a boatload of patience and a husband serving in the war effort overseas.
Fincher never stays in one place very long. The scenes at the ranch are frequently broken up with rapid-fire flashbacks that can be disorienting until you get a grasp on what the director is going for. We get a scene from 1930 where Mank (as Mankiewicz is affectionately called) meets and impresses newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the inspiration for the Charles Foster Kane character. He also meets Hearst’s carefree and endearing mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a young actress who immediately takes a liking to Mank. In many ways their relationship is the heart of the film and its a really good turn from Seyfried.
Later Fincher takes us back in time to Paramount Studios to witness a hilarious brainstorm session in the writer’s room. Then we swing by MGM where blustering studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) waxes not-so-eloquently about his movie philosophy before duping a group a employees with a ‘times are hard‘ speech. Fincher makes several of these studio stops through flashbacks landing some firm shots at their top-heavy structure but also admiring their vibrant creative energy. Each studio scene is richly textured, full of period detail and ambiance, and exquisitely captured through Eric Messerschmidt’s black-and-white cinematography.
More flashbacks show Mank giving himself over to booze and self-loathing, steadily losing his goodwill with studio heads and straining close relationships. Look no further than his exasperated wife Sara who is played by a terrific Tuppence Middleton working at just the right temperature. And then you have his unique friendship with the powerful Hearst which in many ways makes his eventual “Kane” script feel like something of a betrayal on top of being controversy. History tells us Hearst was enraged by “Citizen Kane”. Mankiewicz’s friendship with the mogul soured and Mank was tossed from Hearst’s social circles.
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Fincher also uses Mank’s eyes to observe the 1934 California gubernatorial race between socialist Upton Sinclair and the conservative Republican incumbent Frank Merriam. Again we see many nuggets that not only influenced aspects of “Citizen Kane” but that also cut with a sharp present-day relevance. Backdoor politics, yellow journalism – its all here. Eventually everything meets at a combustible dinner party scene where Mank’s off-putting drunken monologue screeches things to a halt. It’s a big performance moment for Oldman who throughout the film captures every facet of Mankiewicz’s brilliant yet self-defeating personality. But the scene draws out too long and is too showy even for a movie as showy as this one.
“Mank” offers a very particular point-of-view on the longstanding debate over who wrote “Citizen Kane”. Much like Kael’s controversial and since discredited essay, Fincher is clearly sympathetic towards Herman Mankiewicz. He highlights Mank’s work while Orson Welles (portrayed by Tom Burke) mostly exists on the periphery of his story. But Fincher wisely doesn’t discount Welles’ contribution and ultimately his film is about more than just authorship. It’s an ambitious ode to a bygone Hollywood era. It’s a story about damaged genius and self-destruction. Above all it’s an applause-worthy celebration of the art of cinema, a visual and performance-rich delight. I was amazed yet unsure of it after one viewing. I was captivated and convinced after a second. “Mank” premieres today on Netflix.