Mank is a glorious throwback to a bygone Hollywood filmmaking era that still manages to feel current with themes about fake news, manually crafting a legacy of power brokers, and how one person tried to change the historical narrative via the medium of film. The fact the film turned out to be the iconic Orson Welles movie Citizen Kane makes the story even cooler. Shot in beautiful black and white with a flip-flopping flashback and flashforward narrative, Mank evokes the tone and structure of Citizen Kane without ever feeling like a rip off. Instead, this is a companion piece to one of the most famous movies ever made. One will have to know how Kane works to get the most out of Mank, but the movie stands on it’s own as a story about a quirky yet resolute man who tried to express truth through art and the problems it caused.
Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a screenwriter in the 1940s who has been assigned by the young prodigy, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay for Welles’ newest movie, Citizen Kane. Mank is currently laid up with a broken leg and is looked after by his housemaid Freda (Monika Grossmann) and typist, Rita (Lilly Collins) and has only two months to finish. The script Mank writes is a thinly veiled fictional account of the life of his former friend, newspaper owner and rich fella William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young partner, Marion (Amanda Seyfried). And when people find out, it may crush any chance for the film to be made. Further complicating matters, Mank wants credit for his work, something Welles would never stand for.
Superficially, Mank is about trials and tribulations about the making of Citizen Kane but its really about the title character and the writing of Citizen Kane is a framing structure. Orson Welles is basically a supporting character who gets furious when Mank wants credit. Burke as Welles nails the voice and his big confrontation scene with Mank is riveting. Flashbacks throughout show the beginning and messy end of Mank’s friendship with Hearst and Marion and the brutal political campaign in the mid-30s that Hearst is bankrolling. The structure of Mank is intentionally like Citizen Kane, skipping along the decades. Mank describes the script for Kane as one can only show pieces of a person’s life in two hours, which is what happens here.
The black and white imagery is fantastic and gives the movie a sense of depth. The whole vibe recalls Welles’ direction; the visuals aren’t going for realism, more like an old throwback Hollywood. Director David Fincher (Fight Club) is working from a script that was written by his father, Jack, and this is one of Fincher’s more verbose movies, recalling Aaron Sorkin’s whiplash flashback/flashforward script for Fincher’s The Social Network. Like Social Network, Mank keeps things visually lush even if it is just a bunch of chatting. One of the best scenes in Mank is MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) walking along in a cool tracking shot as he lays out his moviemaking philosophy, saying proudly “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it to him. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anyone tell you different!”
Oldman as Mank is great. Mank is in literally every scene of the film and basically steals the show with his random quips but underneath it all he has an existential dread about the world and a surprisingly deep heart that he covers up with humour. He is particularly disturbed that the studio is making propaganda films to take down a political opponent; total fake news which is eerily prescient in 2020 for a script that was written decades ago and is set in the 1930s. He wryly opines about the propaganda movie that “the shots of invading hobos have a particularly xenophobic touch”.
Collins and Grossman as his caretakers have some bemused reactions to Mank trying to drink his way through the writing process. The scenes with Mank’s wife Sarah (Tuppence Middleton), who Mank calls “Poor Sarah” to everyone, shows a long-suffering wife who still loves her crazed husband. Seyfried as Hearst’s partner has an ethereal beauty befitting an old movie star and she seems to genuinely love Hearst. Dance as Hearst gets to do his mean glowering thing which he is always good at but he’s not exactly a horrible caricature of a wealthy man. In the climatic scene when Mank tears a strip off him Hearst seems somehow sympathetic, patronizing Mank for being a drunken, ranting fool. That is probably what ticks Mank off so much, ultimately writing Citizen Kane as sort of payback and sort of a tribute to the good friend he once had.
Mank celebrates a bygone era and style of filmmaking without glamourizing it as idealized. It was a messy era with messy results and only a messy drunken reprobate of a man was able to chronicle it through his screenplay. It is difficult, and gusty, to pull off a side-quel to one of the most iconic movies ever made but Mank does so eloquently.
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins