Many who sit down to watch David Fincher’s Mank might find it different than what they expected. Probably because what they were expecting was a showdown between writer Herman J. Mankiwiecz and director Orson Welles. Maybe they were hoping for something depicting high drama between the two men. It is not a movie about actors, or a love letter to Hollywood. It is, of course, a love letter to Fincher’s father, Jack. It’s a love letter to the cinematography of Greg Toland. A love letter to Welles and a love letter to Mank.
While you’re watching the film you will be struck by its apparent beauty. That’s the love letter to the great Greg Toland who shot Citizen Kane and without whom the film simply would not be what it is: a masterpiece of abstract expressionism. Then you will notice shades of the film Citizen Kane, especially if you’re someone who watches it all of the time (as I do). The phrase at the top of this website comes from Citizen Kane: “You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.” That refers to the character of Kane who became a newspaper man but then insisted upon making the news to sell papers.
What most don’t know about William Randolph Hearst, on whom Kane is based and played by Charles Dance (brilliantly, wickedly) is that Hearst once had high ambitions in politics. Not just any politics, but populism. Working class, bordering on socialism. You might ask how does a man of that kind, a man of immeasurable immense wealth, have the nerve to speak to the little guy? Well, look at the man in the White House, for starters.
Mank is, as it would turn out, much more political than people realize. It springs from the mind of the man who would raise David Fincher, and it is most definitely not about who gets to take credit for Kane. Rather, it is a rumination on a walking contradiction. A man who wants to do something great with his life but ultimately is undone by the trappings of wealth. As Charles Foster Kane says in the film, “If I Hadn’t Been Very Rich, I Might Have Been A Really Great Man.”
The story that unfolds in Mank is that trajectory. That you don’t get to the brilliance of Kane without understanding what really drove William Randolph Heart to reach for greatness in such ridiculous ways. Fincher’s film – his father’s script – is a way of explaining both how news and Hollywood have been tools of propaganda for the corrupt, while pretending to be fighting the good fight. It is, if nothing else, an indictment, rather than a tribute to Hollywood, and to Hearst.
Mank is the missing piece in the puzzle of Citizen Kane. Mank is the eye that saw the agony, the contradictions, the hypocrisy and the illusion. Mank is the faceless man in Citizen Kane who sees everything but can’t be seen. You have to watch Mank understanding this. Understanding that you are tasked with solving a puzzle and that puzzle will mean you can’t wait for the film to explain to you what it is about. You have to figure that out for yourself.
Why I believe it to be among Fincher’s best work, if not his best, is that it works on so many different levels. On its face it is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, black and white as it was intended – rich black, bright whites, how it captures silk and platinum hair. But once you get past the top layer, which celebrates and nods to the high achievement of Toland, you then get down to the writer, the guy who — for one script in his life, in one brave moment, told the truth. He did what writers should do. What journalists should do. What artists must do: see everything and tell the truth.
What does Mank see? He sees a rich man and a movie studio working together to fool voters into believing a lie about an honorable politician who fought for the working man. He sees a wealthy titan surrounded by yes men who makes movies for his girlfriend to star in. He sees a nonetheless alienated and lonely man who keeps Mank around for entertainment. Mank drinks it all way. He can’t perform like the organ grinder’s monkey unless he’s blitzed out of his mind.
So for one moment in his life – he looked, he saw and he told the truth.
What you need to know when watching Mank is all of these things at once. And that is no easy task. You need to know about Citizen Kane, why it was so great, why Hearst fought it like he did, what he was afraid of exposing. You need to know why Hollywood so feared Welles. You need to know that Mank was a mostly disregarded show pony who wrote throwaway scripts until the one time he didn’t. You need to know that Mank was an alcoholic and a gambler but, at the end of the day, he was a good man.
And finally, you need to know that David Fincher made the script his father wrote to pay tribute to his brilliant pops, but also to pay tribute and to bring modern movie watchers a little bit closer towards Kane, and in so doing, a little bit closer to cinema. Big, beautiful, vibrant, risk-taking, complicating, challenging cinema.
So take a chance on it but know this: you can’t just watch it once if you want to really solve the puzzle of Mank.