David Fincher’s portrait of disputed Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is a probing look beyond all that glitters
Mank, the latest picture from master of the meticulous David Fincher, is a film that got me thinking about who movies are for. Who do we impress with a probing script and glittering design? Who are we performing to with every bombastic mimicry of emotion? Who really wins when handed those gold statuettes?
We are here to revisit the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who, history tells us, wrote Citizen Kane alongside the film's infamous actor-director-producer Orson Welles. According to Fincher and his late father Jack, who penned this film's screenplay, Mank should have been credited on his own. But such disputes – over ownership, authorship – aren’t new for the screenwriter. We’re told pretty quickly in Mank, which reframes the birth of the Citizen Kane screenplay: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave an impression of one.”
And so, you are offered an impression of a flawed and furiously talented man. Gary Oldman slips into Mank’s skin with unnerving, uncanny conviction, playing a person simultaneously stymied and supported by the glossy politics of Hollywood. “If I hadn’t loved him I would have hated him,” Welles had said. Mank drinks too much and has broken his leg, but his mind is still sharper than anyone’s. We watch as he writes and drinks and writes and smokes in bed, dictating to one Rita Alexander (Lily Collins, quite moving) and being nursed back to health by Fraulein Freda (Monkia Grossman) while Welles (Tom Burke, convincing but still unobtrusive) regularly checks in.
We then watch as Mank goes back in time, to California, 1934: Frank Merriam is running against Upton Sinclair in the gubernatorial election; Mank makes friends with screenwriter Charles Lederer, and subsequently meets his aunt, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, mesmerizing), over weekends in San Simeon, and also becomes familiar with her lover, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Charles Foster Kane, Welles’ protagonist in Citizen Kane, is said to be a loose proxy.
The film continues to flit between past and present, spinning an intricate web of the people and politics that led to the rise of Welles’ masterpiece and the demise of Mank. But Fincher isn’t here to make you pity Mank – this is the man who made The Social Network – but to cast a cynical and lucid eye on the corruption in the Hollywood ranks that was (and still is) necessary to have your voice heard, to ensure that history will remember you.
This isn’t a love letter to golden era Hollywood, preaching the old adage that “they don’t make 'em like they used to,” though Mank is proof that they still do – at least aesthetically. Erik Messerschmidt’s sulphurous cinematography lenses the film in overcast, muted tones. Wide-open glamorous landscapes are gorgeous, but also flat and dry: clouds fade into skylights into blood transfusion bags that glitter through sunbeams – but there are no stars in anyone’s eyes. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have fun with their sweeping score, too – the juddering guitars and 8-bit percussion of The Social Network or Gone Girl are gone, but there’s still a sense of tension boiling, of the airiness of the strings arrangements leaving room for mischief to ensue.
The film is dense, forcing a squint to appreciate the beauty and a constant mental push to digest the slicing, clear-eyed voice of Fincher's father. Mank feels the same way about Hollywood as David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake, admiring its glamorous legacy while acknowledging that something poisonous lies beneath. Greed and laziness are paramount. A man’s ego and ambition are his sharpest weapons and most lethal flaws.
The men in Mank bend the rules because they know they can. Fincher has always sculpted masterpieces out of the clay of wry and wretched men – those who are hungry, tired, volatile, too intelligent for their own good – and here he erects something beautiful and damning again, while still letting you look at the dirty fingerprints time can’t quite smooth out. His Hollywood history isn’t in love with itself: there’s an awareness of the responsibility of success, the price of brilliance and its inevitable decay.
Mank won’t be for everyone – if you don’t love Fincher enough, Welles enough, stories that sit in the grey areas enough. It's a movie that demands to be dissected, revisited, challenged. Citizen Kane wasn’t made for the man it was based on (Hearst’s newspapers and radio stations blocked all mentions of the film); as Mank fought for credit, you wonder whether anyone really considered that the film belonged to him. And in terms of you, watching Mank on Netflix and wondering what to believe and what to remember? A line from the script (as a whole, the most corrosive thing to reach screens this year) leaves it all up for grabs. On the business of making movies, we’re told: “The buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory.” If you’re hungry for anything more than that – justice, credit, any one definitive truth – you’ve come to the wrong place. Still: there’s no denying the magic in simply sitting back and enjoying Fincher's flawed and fascinating show.
Mank will be available to stream on Netflix on December 4.Where to watch