Everybody knows Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve at least absorbed it through cultural osmosis. In many ways, the film’s legacy is more illustrious than the film itself, often strewn about like a turn of phrase, “the movie’s alright, but it’s no Citizen Kane…” Unlike Welles’s famous flick, its lead writer Herman J. Mankiewicz has enjoyed no such longevity. David Fincher seeks to correct this with his first film since 2014, Mank (2020).
The discourse surrounding Mank seems to linger on Mankiewicz’s authorial credit over Citizen Kane. The film is typically accredited to its director, producer and star Orson Welles, first and foremost. That isn’t really what the movie is about, however. Rather, it’s a study of the titular character himself (here played by Gary Oldman) and what motivated his magnum opus in the first place.
Critical but never cynical, Mank is an easy character to love, not least for Oldman’s stellar performance. He has all the hallmarks of a great mind: he’s quick-witted, funny, poetic and charming as hell. He’s talkative, perhaps to a fault, often yammering his way into offending someone; “always the smartest guy in the room,” he laments after cracking wise, ignorant to his assistant having discovered of her brother’s potential death. He’s also a gambling addict and a belligerent drunk—being creative often comes with its vices, after all. Our protagonist guides us through a menagerie of non-chronological scenes spanning the zeitgeist of the time—from California’s socialist gubernatorial candidate to W.R. Hearst (Charles Dance), the exorbitantly wealthy media baron who inspired Charles Foster Kane.
Fincher has lovingly garnished his film with the panache of old Hollywood, from the archaic title sequences to soothing fade cuts of old. Amidst the monochrome cinematography and dramatic score, we begin to get the sense that this is not so much a historically-accurate biopic as it is an attempt to capture a long-lost cinematic legacy. Perhaps this is the best way to enjoy Mank; like similar films such as Ed Wood (Burton, 1994), the joy is not in its depiction of events, but in its success at reviving a particular kind of a movie, and with the precision only attainable by Fincher himself. All of this is achieved without appearing like a caricature.
The issue is that Mank is a feature for film fans. There are certainly many who will watch and recognise hints of Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, and, of course, Orson Welles. But there are also plenty who won’t. This isn’t a strict criticism of the viewer or the film. By all means, it could serve as a gateway for the uninitiated. It seems more likely, though, that the average viewer may find it austere, uninviting, or even worse: boring. The question, then, is: why should we care?
The real heart of Mank is not in its aesthetics but in its politics. Himself a staunch socialist, Mankiewicz serves as a necessary mouthpiece for criticising America’s conservativism. If you think the datedness of the story would hinder its contemporary relevance, you’re mistaken. Characters express a knee-jerk resentment of even the word socialism and an inaccurate conflation of its principles with communism. This kind of thinking is unfortunately all too persistent today. Such ignorance is exploited by men like Hearst so they can sit uninterrupted atop their dragon’s pile of gold.
In Mank, the film industry serves as a microcosm of US socio-politics. A striking scene springs to mind and reveals the barbaric pecking order at play behind the scenes. L.B. Mayer (of MGM) gathers his underlings to deliver the news of the studio’s financial trouble. He imposes a 50% pay-cut on the lot of them. With honeyed words and crocodile tears, he’s quickly able to vie the favour of the more fortunate in his audience. Those who already earn peanuts aren’t so impressed. “Is everyone going to be pitching in? Are you, Mr. Mayer?” someone asks—a question he artfully dodges. Even here in England, the government’s recent bolstering of their own salaries while setting to freeze pay for public-sector workers makes such a scene hauntingly pertinent.
Mank isn’t exempt from criticism. The non-linear structure of the story can be a little hard to follow at times, but it keeps the pace from flatlining, and really helps the film earn its 2+ hour running time. More so, it is all part of Fincher’s attempt to evoke the glory of Citizen Kane and its elusive writer. As is stated in the film itself, “all in all it’s a bit of a jumble. . . a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans.” But as Mank himself is quick to point out, “welcome to my mind, old sock.”
At the end of the day, Fincher has delivered (yet again) at producing a meticulously crafted movie. If you don’t mind slicing a couple of hours out of your day, Mank is a stirring, engrossing, and rewarding film.