As classic movies go, Citizen Kane breathes the thinnest, most rarified air. The film’s journey to this cinematic Everest has been scrutinized for going on eighty years now: Film historians have pored over documents and dissected every syllable of dialogue in an attempt to explain how and why this perfection came to being. A simmering debate has even bubbled for years about who imbued Kane with its heart and soul. On one hand, you have Orson Welles, the charismatic wunderkind–the original auteur. On the other, there’s the boozy, brilliant Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the script and–at the very least–gifted it with flourishes of elegiac beauty and sardonic flair.
David Fincher’s Mank adopts the controversial position that much of Kane‘s glory goes to the man behind The Man. By 1940, Mank (Gary Oldman) was, in his own estimation, “washed-up.” As the film begins, Mank is holed up at a Victorville country house, convalescing from a car accident and trying to wean himself off the sauce. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has contracted Mank to loosely adapt the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) for the big screen. To make matters worse, Mank only has 60 days to deliver his work, an arduous deadline even for someone who’s not simultaneously washed-up and drying out.
Mank mirrors Kane by hopping around in time, using Mank’s recovery and writing as a central hub. We flashback to early days of talking pictures, when Mank was a writer-for-hire and acerbic partygoer, prized by the elite for his liquor-fueled bon mots: He socializes with–and works for–Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Hearst. Mank also enjoys a flirtation with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a noted comic actress and Hearst’s longtime mistress.
Over the course of this leapfrogging narrative, Mank slowly and skillfully presents its contention that Mankiewicz was the brainchild behind Kane, as well as the living conduit for all of its heartbreak and jaundiced worldview. As written by Jack Fincher (David’s father, who passed away in 2003), the film presents Welles as something of a construction foreman, a nagging boss who has to keep the project–and Mank–from imploding into rubble.
This ties to the film to Raising Kane, Pauline Kael’s book that passionately argues for Mankiewicz as the primary genius behind the masterwork. Subsequent analysis has established that Welles contributed just as much–if not more–to the script than Mankiewicz did. The two men both supplied Kane‘s creative fire, a la Lennon and McCartney. Still, Mank clings to that debunked thesis, and your enjoyment of it will likely hinge on whether or not you can push such outdated notions aside.
If that sounds like a deal-breaking gripe, it’s not. Mank still does a lot of things right. For movie buffs, this is a dewy-eyed love poem to Hollywood’s Golden Age: Fincher takes us meandering through studio backlots and into the haze of smoke-filled meetings. We meet luminaries like Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms). Mank gets into heated political discussions with Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).
The film also pays homage to Kane‘s signature look and feel. Fincher mimics many of Gregg Toland’s most famous shots. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt makes beautiful use of the film’s black-and-white palate: Everything looks old and new at the same time. Mank and Marion stroll along Hearst’s Xanadu-style gardens, in a scene filmed using old day-for-night camera techniques. Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deploy an old school score that sounds eerily similar to Bernard Herrmann. TL;DR: This is a gorgeous movie to see and hear.
As for Oldman, he may be a little too old to play Herman Mankiewicz in his thirties and forties, but damned if his performance still isn’t spectacular. His Mank has a brilliant mind and a kind spirit, but also a big mouth that threatens to outpace either of them. In the movie’s most devastating scene, Mank crashes a highfaluting dinner party, staggering around the room like a drunken gadfly. His words pulse like serpent venom, injuring him as much as his stunned audience. Oldman will likely snag an Oscar nomination, and a good chunk of that will be for this scene alone.
Fincher surrounds Oldman with incredible talent: Few actors can play a haughty prick with the precision of Dance. Here, he gives Hearst the sinister silkiness of man who casually enjoys how frightening he is. Arliss plays Mayer as a Mercurial titan who might fire everybody in the room at any given minute. As Marion, Seyfried’s big eyes convey a permanently wounded sense of sweetness. Finally, don’t sleep on Sam Troughton’s high-strung John Houseman, or Lily Collins as Mank’s flummoxed new assistant.
Finally, like Kane before it, Mank boasts an intriguing story behind its making. Jack Fincher wrote the script many years ago, and his son intended to film it in the 90s. The project never gained any traction, as often happens in Hollywood. It gathered dust for many years, languishing in development hell long after Jack had passed away. David got underway with it in 2019, and the final result feels like a real labor of love–a tribute to a great writer who wrote about another great writer.
131 min. R. Netflix.