David Fincher's "Mank" ably gets "Citizen Kane" — and also Hollywood's dark heart
Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance, Sam Troughton, Tom Pelphrey, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, and Monika Gossmann. Written by Jack Fincher. Directed by David Fincher. Opens Friday in select theatres, streams as of Dec. 4 on Netflix. 132 minutes. PG
True confession: “Citizen Kane” is a movie I have always admired more than loved. The 1941 Orson Welles masterpiece of American alienation is splendid in form and content — it’s rightly studied in film schools and celebrated by critics — but the story and its fateful protagonist, a media mogul played with icy authority by Welles, are colder than a Siberian snow globe.
David Fincher’s fact-inspired drama “Mank” comes as a corrective of sorts to “Kane” mania. It likewise boasts dazzling formal rigour, with Erik Messerschmidt’s black and white cinematography tipping its lens hood to the deep-focus visuals and Expressionist rigour of Gregg Toland’s “Kane” work. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — Fincher regulars — contribute a jazzy score steeped in menace and mystery.
Yet unlike its Wellesian touchstone, which was also partially rooted in fact, the film presents a more human portrayal of its flawed central figure, “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman seizes the title role, setting the silver screen ablaze with an awards-worthy performance of a brilliant mind and wit hindered by booze, betting and hubris. One of the year’s best movies, “Mank” is resplendent in its own right, but a prior viewing of “Citizen Kane” seriously assists with appreciation of what Fincher has wrought.
“Mank” gets to the dark heart of Hollywood’s “magic” the way few films ever have. The central narrative of the controversial birth of “Citizen Kane,” with its still simmering argument about whether Mankiewicz wrote alone or Welles deserved the co-screenwriting credit for which the two shared an Academy Award (the only win out of nine nominations), plays second fiddle to a gripping tale of Old Hollywood wheeling, dealing and deceiving.
Fincher seeks to expose Tinseltown myths even as he celebrates them. The most basic of these is the notion that grand artistic endeavours spring fully formed from the brow of a creative genius. The initial impulse may arrive that way, but it requires a lot of sweat to bring it to the screen.
“Mank” also bears witness to the labour unrest and political dirty tricks of its Depression-era time frame, themes that resonate in these economically fraught pandemic times and in the filthy swamp of Donald Trump’s baseless attempts to overturn the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Written decades ago by Jack Fincher, the director’s late father, the film opens in 1940 as Mankiewicz — who obligingly also answers to Herm, Hermie and Manky — is holed up in a Mojave Desert retreat trying to meet an impossible 60-day writing deadline set by Welles (Tom Burke, amusingly authoritarian), a 24-year-old rising star with boundless talent and ambition to whom studio RKO Pictures has given free rein. Back at home with the kids is Mank’s long-suffering wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton), whom he condescendingly (but accurately) refers to as “Poor Sara,” much to her embarrassment.
Complicating matters further, Mank is recovering from a careless auto accident that left him with a shattered leg. Welles attempts to keep his star scribbler away from drink, but Mank insists to his three minders — his secretary (Lily Collins), nurse (Monika Gossman) and production taskmaster (Sam Troughton) — that he needs a little something to help him focus.
Frequent flashbacks over the preceding decade shows Mank tangling with infamous publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the thinly veiled inspiration for his towering “Kane” protagonist, a figure of menace and regret.
Mank exchanges barbs with Hollywood potentate Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), a close friend of Hearst’s who has little patience for the screenwriter’s liberal views and who sneers at Mank’s addiction to alcohol and gambling. Initially, MGM studio boss Mayer, the control-freak creator of Hollywood’s exploitative “star system,” tolerates Mank because of the man’s talent as both writer and script doctor — he had a hand in fixing “The Wizard of Oz,” among other films — and because Mank somehow amuses Hearst.
The sozzled screenwriter also befriends Hearst’s decades-younger mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whom Mank, hungover and dishevelled as always, meets when he wanders onto a film set and spots her tied to a post like Joan of Arc for an impending fiery scene. “Well, what’s at stake here?” he deadpans, to her delight.
The relationship between the scribe and showgirl is the film’s most affable pairing. The duo we see curiously little of, given the film’s subject, is Mank and Welles. Their encounters are more via telephone than in person.
Speculation about who wrote what for “Kane” will continue to bubble, although Fincher and his late father clearly side with the “Mankiewicz did it” school of thought.
“Mank” is an intense and sometimes hermitic affair, much like “Citizen Kane” itself. The difference is that Fincher and Oldman breathe life into a captivating flesh-and-blood figure while the title totem of “Kane” remains largely a creature of furious imagination, frozen in time and space.
(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star.)