If you come to David Fincher’s Mank seeking a definitive answer to the question of who really wrote Citizen Kane you are likely to find yourself disappointed.
The question, first raised by film critic Pauline Kael in a 1971 essay, has hung out there in the cinema atmosphere for decades. Kael’s conclusion that it was entirely Herman J. Mankiewicz’s doing with zero contributions from Orson Welles was almost immediately repudiated by those in the know. Years of research since then continue to refute Kael’s stance and there is a consensus now that the film bears the marks of both men, something the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized at the time by awarding both men the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the only Oscar the “greatest film ever made” received out of nine nominations.)
I don’t think it’s a question that Fincher finds all that interesting, either. There’s no doubt that Mankiewicz delivered a script and that his script was at the core of what became – with major reworking by Welles – Citizen Kane. I think Fincher is more interested in why Mank wrote what he wrote, particularly since it seemed to be a betrayal of people with whom he had become close (William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies). The answer to that question is simple and is what Fincher’s film is really about – politics.
Fincher has taken a story about old Hollywood, dressed it up with art design and black and white cinematography that evoke the era (and Kane itself), and highlighted the characters that appeal to film buffs (Louis B. Mayer! Irving Thalberg! David Selznick!) to tell the tale of the 1934 California Gubernatorial contest and how the Hollywood powers-that-be worked to derail the candidacy of muckraker Upton Sinclair. A casual comment by Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to M-G-M head of production Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) on the potential for the movies to influence the race leads to all sorts of tragedies. What would become Citizen Kane is made out to be a sort of atonement by Mankiewicz.
The modern-day parallels are hard to miss as complaints about socialism and the fear of a socialist state are debated at the massive dining room table at San Simeon. One can imagine similar conversations being held at kitchen tables in red states right now.
Oldman is terrific as Mankiewicz, giving another of his chameleon-like performances as he captures both Mankiewicz’s wit and his decay. The script by Jack Fincher (David’s late father) and the performance of Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies give the underrated Davies her due and more than a modicum of respect. As most film bios do, it takes some liberties with the facts and timeline of events and ascribes some dialogue to people other than those who actually said it. It also dims the halo a bit that has long hung over Thalberg. Charles Dance is an imperious Hearst, and Arliss Howard makes for an interesting Mayer. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is more heard (on the phone) than seen as the setup for the film is that Mank has been exiled to Victorville to recover from an auto accident and write the script with few distractions.
The film gets a little precious with its attempts to recreate the style of a film shot in the late ‘30’s and even includes (to no real purpose) reel change marks. The film is flashback-heavy, as was Kane and, like that film, can be seen as a sort of a puzzle in search of an answer. The answer to Kane’s “Rosebud” puzzle (SPOILER ALERT) was a sled. The answer to Mank’s “Why’d he do it?” puzzle may be a little more complex, or the answer could just be “because.”
As hard as Mank would appear to be on old Hollywood, it still has a veneer of nostalgic longing for the good ol’ days about it. Seek out John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust for a fascinating alternative look at the same period in Hollywood.
Mank is streaming exclusively on Netflix.