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Citizen Kane is far more than just the story about the rise and vast emptiness of fictional tycoon Charles Foster Kane. Like any film considered one of the greatest of all time, its legend goes far beyond what’s projected on the screen, with the efforts leading to its creation and its immense pop culture impact both adding to its magnitude. In totality, it’s a remarkable work of courage and rebellion from its creators, who put everything on the line to make it a reality. But while the name that immediately conjures in the mind in this discussion is Orson Welles, not to be ever forgotten or dismissed is the contribution of Herman J. Mankiewicz.
David Fincher’s Mank is an exercise in ensuring that never happens, and it’s a phenomenal success. The film is equal parts biopic and cinematic homage, and while both those approaches come respectively with the risk of getting lost in love for the subject, the needle is threaded in such a way that makes it both a fantastic original and key supplemental material. It only enhances one’s appreciation of the genius 1941 movie at the center of its plot, while also unfolding a tremendous tale about one of old Hollywood’s unique characters.
In meta fashion, there is a history to Mank’s script, which was first written in the 1990s and penned by David Fincher’s father Jack Fincher – who passed away in 2003. Rather than being in any way dated, however, the film is arguably even more relevant today, which is both a tribute to the timelessness of Citizen Kane, and because of its subject’s bold politics.
We’re introduced to Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) in the middle of the action, with the Hollywood veteran having agreed to use his recuperation time following a car accident to take on a new project for writer/director/producer Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The young upstart filmmaker has been given the unprecedented opportunity to make his feature debut with zero restrictions or limitations to his vision, and Mank, who is recognized by the industry as a washed-up drunk, has been tasked with producing a first draft of the screenplay in 60 days – though only being hired as a script doctor, he knows he won’t see get an official credit.
He spends his bedridden days scribbling and reciting pages to hired typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) while both struggling through his vices and against a hard deadline. As Citizen Kane – originally titled American – is born, flashbacks take us back in time to the 1930s and divulge personal experience that motivates what he puts on the page, particularly his relationships with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and notorious newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).
Mank’s homage runs deep, including both aesthetics and story structure.
David Fincher’s insistence on shooting in black-and-white was the sticking point that stopped Mank from originally being made twenty-plus years ago, and in retrospect the director was absolutely right to stick to his guns. The style opens the doors to all varieties of callbacks to the specific and memorable aesthetics of Citizen Kane, instantly making you fall back into the time period. Some shots are overt references – such as a passed-out Mank dropping a bottle recalling Charles Foster Kane dropping his snow globe – but mostly it’s about hints and dashes, including an abundant use of deep focus in the cinematography, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross building the score with only era-specific instruments. And while he shot the movie in digital, Fincher also takes the step to bring cigarette burns to the Netflix experience, with blips in the top right corner suggesting employees of the streaming service are swapping film reels as you watch.
An extension of the protagonist’s profession in the visuals, Mank sets up each of its flashbacks with a timestamp in the form of a typed scene heading identifying the year and location – which in turn highlights another smart way the film brings back the style of Citizen Kane: through the storytelling. It’s not a direct comparison, but Fincher’s film explores the life and times of Herman Mankiewicz with the exact same kind of non-linear narrative that the screenwriter used to tell the story of Charles Foster Kane, and does so with the same efficiency and enthrallment. Altogether, it paints a fascinating portrait of a fascinating man.
The story provides an in-depth glimpse into 1930s/1940s Hollywood, but Mank’s scope far greater than that.
On that note, to simply say that Mank is about old Hollywood and the making of Citizen Kane is reductive and inaccurate. It would be the equivalent of saying that the 1941 classic is solely about how Charles Foster Kane built a business empire. It certainly isn’t shy about identifying the 1941 movie as Mankiewicz’s greatest work, but what David and Jack Fincher have really made is a film about a remarkable individual. At first blush there is the impression that he is a fool – a damaged alcoholic who flirts too much and makes ridiculous, irresponsible bets – but that’s counterbalanced with the revelations that he is always the smartest man in the room, and never willing to keep a controversial thought to himself, regardless of the company he’s keeping.
During a time in America when the ruling class was content to turn a blind eye to the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany, Mank confronts and castigates the likes of Louis B. Mayer and William Randolph Hearst in public with zero fear of repercussion. When writer Upton Sinclair makes a go at bringing progressive values to California by running for governor, the protagonist doesn’t blink in his support, and actively rebels against MGM support of incumbent Frank Merriam. Ultimately his independent streak threatens his livelihood, but, of course, it’s because of the man that he is and the incredible morals he possesses that he can help create of the greatest films ever made.
Gary Oldman is phenomenal, and David Fincher surrounds him with a stellar ensemble.
Jack Fincher’s script is brilliant, both in structure and detail (the wit is sharp enough at times to bring down a redwood), and a perfect cast has been brought together to bring it to life, with Gary Oldman in particular delivering one of the greatest performances of his career – which is a statement that should be taken with extreme weight given that he is just three years removed from his remarkable, Oscar-winning transformation into Winston Churchill for Joe Wright's Darkest Hour. Beyond his ability to vanish into the role, Oldman hits all of the notes of the character at the right pitch to make them sing and have Mankiewicz come across as the engaging, complicated man he was. From hurt to boisterous, his touch is perfect.
With David Fincher opting not to go the A-list ensemble route, Gary Oldman is surrounded in the film by primarily character actor talent, and not only does that serve to make the world of the movie all the more immersive, but also creates the opportunity for surprises. Anyone who has ever seen him act knows that Charles Dance can effortlessly project a sinister and foreboding energy (and he certainly makes William Randolph Hearst an intimidating figure), but smart use of Tom Burke’s Orson Welles is made, as he becomes an intense, shadowy figure; Arliss Howard makes an audacious, loathsome Louis B. Mayer; and Amanda Seyfried is a wonderful scene-stealer. Her Brooklyn-tinged charm is effortless, and a wonderful complexity is provided in the realization that Marion Davies, who was Hearst’s mistress, was partial inspiration for the tragic Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane.
Mank deliberately puts itself in the footsteps of a pop culture giant and at every turn invites comparison to Citizen Kane – and that boldness is executed with a stunning vision that through-and-through makes it a joyful cinematic experience. It’s as smart as it is beautiful, and as captivating as it is enlightening. It’s one of David Fincher’s finest works, and unquestionably one of the best of 2020.