December 7, 2020
Rated ‘R’ for some language.
Stars Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tom Burke, Charles Dance.
David Fincher’s Mank is as much a rebuke of the politics of Hollywood as it is a peek behind the scenes at the creative process that led to Citizen Kane, which is often regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.
The film’s look and feel is definitely an homage to Kane, from its black-and-white photography, to the framing of specific shots, to a time-shifting narrative structure, and a sound mix that seems to emulate classic films. The only thing Fincher seemingly didn’t do was crop the film to a 4:3 aspect ratio.
The docu-drama focuses on the career of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who won an Oscar co-authoring the Kane screenplay with Orson Welles. In the film, Mank (Gary Oldman) works on the Kane script while recovering from a car accident at a retreat in California’s Mojave Desert, and recounts to those around him who inspired the characters in it, leading to flashbacks to the events in question.
Citizen Kane, of course, is famously based on publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, played here by Charles Dance and Amanda Seyfried. For Oldman’s Mank, Hearst’s coziness with Hollywood generated enough resentment to inspire him to pick him apart in his screenplay.
The inciting event in particular seems to be the 1934 California gubernatorial election, in which Hearst and Hollywood backed Republican incumbent Frank Merriam over the Democrats’ nominee, socialist author Upton Sinclair. Mank sympathized with Sinclair’s anti-poverty positions and took offense to Hearst’s bankrolling of propaganda films by MGM, Mank’s home studio.
Fincher’s depiction of classic Hollywood will be catnip for film fans, particularly viewers with an affinity for Citizen Kane, but also history buffs in general. On the other hand, ruminations about Mank’s health, his alcohol dependency and frictions between him and the studio system tend to drag on a bit.
The depiction of Hollywood’s attempt to exert its influence over voters is one of those “the more things change, the more they stay the same” kind of moments, and certainly gives the film a timely quality despite its period setting. While some might see Mank’s moral stance as a left-wing defense of the little guy against the big bad corporate machine, it’s hard not to look at the unseemly alliance between Hearst and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and not see parallels with the media and entertainment establishment’s distaste for Donald Trump (despite whatever message Fincher intended to relay).
The film’s relationship between politics and screenwriting in some ways brings to mind another recent film about a legendary screen scribe, 2015’s Trumbo, about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Oldman’s attempts to capture the affectations of a mid-20th-century Hollywood screenwriter are in many ways similar to Bryan Cranston’s efforts to do the same as Trumbo.
The other aspect of Mank that will have historians poring over it is the question of how much of the Citizen Kane screenplay can actually be attributed to Welles. Mank seems to want to give most of the credit to its title subject, depicting Welles as a collaborator who earns a contractual credit but mostly calls to check in on Mank’s progress and edits the final product for being too long.
The screenplay for Mank was originally written in the 1990s by Jack Fincher, David’s father who died in 2003. He based the premise on an article from the 1970s that questioned whether Welles had anything to do with the Kane screenplay, a notion at Welles supporters have attacked vociferously.
The subject of the making of Citizen Kane was previously the focus of the 1999 HBO movie RKO 281 (a reference to Kane’s production number). However, that movie focused more on the collaboration between the two men, and attributed the rancor toward Hearst more toward Welles, while Mank, played there by John Malkovich, wanted to ease up — a stark contrast to Oldman’s version. Interestingly, the RKO 281 DVD is actually included as a bonus with some Citizen Kane boxed sets.