David Fincher’s Mank is a film about the power of subversive art and why, despite the oppressive forces against it, that is still a cause worth fighting for. Citizen Kane was a dangerously provocative endeavor for its time, or any time, because it dared to reveal secrets about one of the country’s richest and most influential figures. It resonates to this day because it’s quintessentially American, unrestrained in illustrating the extent to which money is used, as Kane says, “to buy things” — including, and perhaps essentially, the desire to buy power.
But people can’t be bought. Love can’t be bought. A human soul cannot be bought. The best you can do is surround yourself with people attracted by money who pretend to love you. And that’s never enough, because it’s never genuine. But cash can be a catalyst too. Mank is a film about a writer who famously said, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” Once the toast of the town, Mank found himself on the outs, so he took a job, like so many others, for a paycheck. He eventually bit the hand that fed him, but thanks to a stroke of luck and the magic alchemy of collaboration he helped create what is arguably the greatest film of all time.
In telling this mostly untold story of the origins of Citizen Kane, Fincher takes the exacting, funny, and ultimately melancholy screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, and expands on it with trademark visual mastery. Rather than simply relate how Kane’s script came to be written, sequences are Cinema itself. With flashback rhythms unfolding, waltz-like, two steps forward one step back, Mank carries us back to 1934 and serves up a feast of sumptuous beauty, from costumes to hair to makeup to production design.
Jack Fincher’s Mank is built around the events that led to the conception and birth of Citizen Kane with an eye on the one name that often gets left behind, Herman J. Mankiewicz, played with sloppy grace by Gary Oldman, whom we first meet when he’s been laid up with a broken leg after a car accident. Assigned a sharp assistant and caregiver, Rita (Lily Collins), Mank is hired by Orson Welles who has just arrived on the west coast as the hottest thing in Hollywood after hitting it big with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Their shared goal, to devise Orson’s debut film for RKO.
The trick was to keep the alcoholic Mank sober enough to finish the work. The problem was that Mank could not really work sober. It happens that way sometimes. The same demons that fueled his persona as the life of the party also fueled his willingness to open a vein and spill it all out on the page.
Mank’s entire career had been spent writing and ghostwriting mostly frivolous comedies, but his talent for witty, sophisticated dialogue was enough to catch the eye of Welles. When given the opportunity to do something significant, Mank settled on the story of a powerful rich oligarch, in a script he initially called The American. It was the moment in the life of a writer for hire to reach for something that mattered.
To pay his late father tribute, and to revisit similar terrain that he explored in The Social Network, Fincher has made Mank not just as the story of Citizen Kane but also as a cinematic tribute to it. Even for this astonishingly talented visual director, that would be a challenge that put his all skills to the test. How to make a film about Citizen Kane that could stand alongside that level of cinematic achievement? The film is flooded with references and nods to Welles and Toland’s masterful camerawork — from the visual pairing of Louis B. Mayer (the great Arliss Howard) and Mr. Bernstein to the silhouette of the nurse walking down the hallway, to the shots from below, to faces in shadow — and in all ways a celebration of the beauty of black and white cinematography. What we remember from Kane is that massive fireplace, the jigsaw puzzle, the scream, the blinding limelights of the opera house, Kane as the only man clapping for Susan in the darkness.
What strikes us about Mank is another scream, the way silk hangs on the curves of Marion Davies (Seyfried), how she hides and sneaks liquor (she would end up dying from alcoholism later in life), and how Charles Dance looms so large as the iconic Hearst, unceremoniously escorting Mank out of his place and forever slamming the heavy giant door in his face.
Mank is more touching and sweeter than Citizen Kane. It is a wink and a nod to Welles and certainly isn’t a film that’s meant to wrestle any credit away from him. Anyone who has seen Kane knows that regardless of who wrote it, without the performance alone and the ensemble acting it could never have become what it is. Here, it is a brilliant writer whose life clearly would have been much more if only he’d figured it out in time. Instead, he drank most of his life away and somehow muddled through — until that one moment came when his much more successful brother told him, “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written.” Even if he isn’t remembered much today, even if not many people know his name — his story was worth telling because without him there is no Citizen Kane.
The folly of making Kane is part what drives the film’s greatness. It is folly that must be observed from an insider’s perspective — a silent observer — who was kept around because Hearst liked his funny stories. Only Herman Mankiewicz could have conceived of Citizen Kane because he knew the story before he even put pen to paper. Kane reveals Mank’s own failure as much as Welles obvious towering arrogance. According to Welles, the film is a cautionary tale about how wealth corrupts. Fincher and Fincher’s Mank weave this beautifully into the retelling by bringing back the socialist ideals of Hearst’s early life juxtaposed with the political corruption that replaced it.
In Mank, we flash backwards and forwards to both the writing process and the events that led to Mank deciding to finally unmask the American oligarch. In so doing, we get to spend time at the Hearst castle in all of its grotesque glory, with the private zoo, and the collection of statues, and of course, Marion Davies. Amanda Seyfried brings the pretty, funny Davies to life by portraying her charms to best advantage, and ultimately does so with immense sympathy and kindness.
One of the complaints some have had with Citizen Kane over the years is that it was cruel to Marion Davies, whose career wasn’t anything like the disaster of Susan Alexander we see in Kane. But in Mank we can see how her story might have easily ended up that way, if Hearst’s grandiose ambitions had been forced on Davies, and how sometimes fiction can simply swallow up real life to make a better movie.
For almost all of its decades-long glory, most people credit Orson Welles entirely for Kane. I can’t tell you how many times my own mind tried to grapple with how a 24-year-old could have made that movie. I could maybe understand the directing, the staging, and the acting because of Welle’s experience in the New York theater. But the wisdom of the story, the rumination on a failed life had to have come from someone else. It’s just not possible to conjure up what that feels like at age 24. But Mank knew. And this film shows why.
In making a movie about the greatest movie ever made, there’s bound to be a sense of inspiration, and even an obligation, to aim for the same heights visually, and you will not see a more beautifully shot film this year. Every second of it, every frame is itself a masterwork. And if that is all you get from Mank you will still be getting more than you will get from any other film this year. But that;’s far from all there is to it. Mank goes so much deeper than that.
No other director working today can master the frame like Fincher. His films are intricate puzzles that can never be fully absorbed in one viewing because it isn’t just the composition, or the editing, or how the score blends with the action, but is all of those things together at once to coalesce the way they do. This is true of every film he has ever made but it is especially true with Mank. At some point you almost throw up your hands at the beauty of it all and think, wow. I mean, how?
Most of us live lives of quiet desperation and many of us, despite how much we try to live our best lives as our best selves, we fail to attain our dreams. Perhaps only those who have lived with failure can authentically write about it. That’s how you know at the heart of Citizen Kane is a sadness of someone who could not get life right, a sense of loss that could never have been written by the young, hot, and arrogant Orson Welles. Though there are many aspects of the life of Kane that were taken from Welles own life, especially his childhood, the heartbreaking arc of man’s ultimately empty life comes from a place of knowing it, not from merely imagining it
Even if it’s just the one time — the one great thing a person does — asking for credit is never easy, especially if you’re the “organ grinder’s monkey” whose entire profession has been bought and paid for by someone who never had any high expectations from you to begin with. Though Herman Mankiewicz was rightly and notoriously celebrated in the 1930s, it would turn out that, aside from Kane, Mank’s legacy would be overshadowed by his much more successful brother Joe. In the film, Mank tells Joe that he’s washed up. There’s no doubt Mank felt that unless he claimed his richly deserved credit for Citizen Kane, that he might be forgotten.
The debate about who gets to claim credit for what parts of that perfect screenplay has raged on for decades, with some falling into the camp that Mank wrote it all (Pauline Kael, John Houseman), And others falling into the camp that gives Orson Welles partial or equal credit (Peter Bogdanovich, Harlan Lebo). Whatever revisions may have been between the first draft and what we see on the screen, we know Welles alone never again wrote anything this good, and we have to wonder how Xanadu could so perfectly replicate the cloistered world of San Simeon if Welles never met Hearst, and was never a trusted confidante of Marion Davies.
The truth of it is that most all the best films are collaborations. Even if Welles could have claimed sole credit for Kane’s screenplay, it would never have touched the heights it reached without the extraordinary collaborations that make it what it is: Gregg Toland’s cinematography, the Mercury Theater troupe’s acting, Robert’s Wise’s editing, Bernard Herrmann’s score. Remove any one of those elements and you no longer have the greatest film ever made.
Mank, though it is driven by Fincher’s persistence of vision, it too would not be what it is without the collaborative efforts of the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the glorious, heart-stopping cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt, editing by Kirk Baxter, costumes by Trish Summerville, and the best screenplay of the year by Jack Fincher, who could have no idea what a magnificent film his son would make of the thing he never lived long enough to take deserved credit for.
I always flinch when I hear anyone describe Fincher’s work as cold. First, because it’s facile. Second, because whenever people expect movies to wrap them in a blanket of warmth, what a lot of them really need is to be told how to feel. Plenty of filmmakers are glad to comply. It’s easy enough to tug on the heartstrings for catharsis, but that’s only one of the functions of art. The best directors don’t resort to such tactics. They find a path to emotional reaction, touching our heart by way of our minds. When we follow the route Mank takes, from the first shot to the last and not be moved by it is, I think, to underestimate the whole point of cinema at all. Film art this good.
We’re living through extraordinary times. We’re compelled to watch a powerful Kane-like figure right now, forced to endure the folly of ego and pride, in the midst of a global pandemic. And if that’s not already enough chaos to bear, we’re confronted by a surreal crisis in journalism, as most writers struggle in vain to make sense of it all. But luckily we’re also living through a time when David Fincher is making movies.
Mank is a film about the power of subversive art and the forces, for better or worse, that propel artists into the maelstrom. It’s a treacherous task, but thank god for those bold enough to tackle it. As long as political and cultural currents aren’t choked by puritanical censorship, it’s the only power artists have got to expose those who seek to shut them up.
Achingly beautiful, impossibly detailed and wildly smart, a head-to-toe masterpiece, Mank is the best film of the year.