Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Jack Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Grossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Charles Dance
The behind-the-scenes story of Citizen Kane shot in the style of Citizen Kane with a screenplay so densely packed it needs at least three viewings to get every reference to Studio System Hollywood and 1930s American politics, culture and society, Mank could only be a passion project for an ardent cinephile such as David Fincher.
In 1940, the 24 year-old radio and theatre wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) arrives in Hollywood to direct and star in his first feature film. That film ended up being the Oscar-winning Citizen Kane, and the man contracted by Welles to write the script was Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a screenwriting veteran with alcohol dependency and an antagonistic relationship with some powerful players at Hollywood’s biggest studios. When Welles drastically cuts Mankiewicz’s deadline as the writer is laid up with a broken leg, and it becomes clear to everyone who reads his script that Kane is an obvious stand-in for the real and still all-powerful newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Mank faces the biggest battle of his colourful career; a career of highs and lows he looks back on in a haze.
Mank‘s screenplay was written two decades ago by David Fincher’s father Jack after the pair bonded over Citizen Kane and became fascinated by the story of its inception. In an interesting stylistic choice, and to draw attention to the nuts and bolts of the screenwriting process, the script’s screen directions appear in caption form throughout the film to introduce the frequent time-jumps and location changes, eg. “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS – DAY – 1930 (FLASHBACK)”. The actual script is something Mank might have been proud of had he written it himself – moving at a mile a minute with with rhythmic back-and-forth between the key players and plenty of acerbically witty barbs usually thrown out by the film’s scathing protagonist.
Mank, dubbed “the funniest man in New York”, was famously vocal of his strongly-held opinions and was regularly tasked with doctoring the work of Hollywood’s less finely-honed writers as well as producing original screenplays, the former of which was a necessary evil to keep him in work that he is shown to loathe. Time and time again we come back to his bile at having to work on The Wizard of Oz, a task he considers far beneath him. Mank evidently had a high (but not unearned) opinion of his own abilities, his obsession with producing something artistic and worthwhile with the Kane screenplay frustrating his more pragmatic and commercially-minded colleagues, each taking it in turn to lambast his pursuit of perfection with “you’re not writing an opera” and “Write hard, aim low”.
It’s in expressing these frustrations, in being artistically held back by his industry and by his own demons, that Oldman’s performance really connects on a human level. He gets an absolute barnstormer of a monologue late in the film; Mank’s furious, slurring “Don Quixote” speech in front of Hearst’s dinner guests. It’s a sequence that left Oldman utterly spent after what is reported to have been one hundred takes. Elsewhere in the cast, Amanda Seyfried stands out vividly as faded star and mistress of Hearst, Marion Davies, while Arliss Howard and Tom Burke impress as the thuggish MGM boss Louis B Meyer and a honeyed but even more intimidating Orson Welles respectively.
The film is a great exponent of the hard-working, unappreciated screenwriters that kept Hollywood afloat during this period. Without a good script, you couldn’t do much, and some scripts were so good the man behind the camera would really have to drop the ball to produce something unwatchable (“that’s director-proof”). Fincher and his father might have valued Mank’s contribution to Citizen Kane‘s success far higher than most (it wasn’t all down to Welles’ early mastery of the filmmaking form), but the manner in which he brings to life his father’s script and their mutual love of this period of filmmaking is frankly dazzling.
Mank is unavoidably self-indulgent, even for an Oscar-friendly film about filmmaking. That said, it’s not uninteresting in its self-indulgence. It’s a bold gambit to invite direct comparisons to Kane in telling the story of its making, but Fincher proves himself more than up to the task. There are explicit nods to the Welles film in the shot choices, with a limp hand dropping glass to the floor and a spiralling substance-addled hallucination as our protagonist hits his lowest point. The classic black-and-white look and mono sound, low-angled shots, deep focus and deeper shadows are also vital, not to mention the noticeable inclusion of sophisticated rear-projection used for the driving scenes. This shooting for authenticity is also echoed in the catchy, propulsive period-appropriate jazzy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Mank is a technical triumph with a towering turn from Oldman and witty repartee to spare. If you don’t have at least a passing familiarity with the workings of this period of Hollywood, the film isn’t going to go easy on you, but it’s a real treat for film fans. Jack and David Fincher fed their love of, and curiosity about, cinema. They refused to take what is often hailed as “the greatest film of all time” at face value, and together they have produced a tribute to an unsung hero of one of the industry’s most fascinating chapters.