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 Orson Welles classic is splendid of form and rich in content — it's rightly studied in film schools and celebrated by critics — but the story and its fateful protagonist, played with icy authority by Welles, are colder than a Siberian snow globe.
David Fincher's "Mank" comes as a corrective of sorts to "Kane" mania. It likewise boasts dazzling formal rigour, with Erik Messerschmidt's B&W 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 the film presents a more human portrayal of its flawed central figure, "Citizen Kane" screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Gary Oldman takes the role, setting the monochrome screen ablaze with an awards-worthy performance of a brilliant mind and wit hindered by booze, betting and hubris.
"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 the two shared an Oscar for, 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 Covid times and in the filthy swamp of Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Written 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 attempting to meet an impossible 60-day writing deadline set by Welles (Tom Burke), 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 an auto accident that left him with a broken 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 taskmaster (Sam Troughton) — that he needs a little something to help him focus.
Frequent flashbacks over the preceding decade shows Mank tangling with infamous media 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 the man's addiction to alcohol and gambling. Initially, MGM studio boss Mayer 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 girlfriend, Marion (Amanda Seyfried), but the relationship between the scribe and showgirl is one of mutual support and zero sex. The pairing we see surprisingly little of, given the film's topic, is that of Mank and Welles. Speculation about who wrote what for "Kane" will continue to rage, although Fincher and his late father clearly side with the "Mankiewicz did it" school of thought.
The film 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 a creature entirely of the mind, frozen in time and space.