One of my earlier memories of film criticism was of Roger Ebert calling Citizen Kane his favorite movie, or perhaps it was the one he considered most important.
Later, when I got around to watching it, I remember thinking it was a fictionalized autobiography – tortured genius Orson Welles mourning his own lost childhood.
Eventually, I caught up with the popular understanding of the movie; Citizen Kane is actually a fictionalized biography of, and attack on, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Most people assume it was Welles’ passion which loosed this scathing attack on Hearst, and that Citizen Kane was born of his genius. Welles certainly wanted everyone to assume that.
The Netflix picture Mank, a black-and-white film that recently received 10 Oscar nominations, seeks to provide an alternative to this assumption with a look at the other man primarily responsible for the most critically successful roast of the 20th century.
Mank is about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man with “co-writer” credit aside Welles in Citizen Kane. It stars Gary Oldman in the titular role, Charles Dance as Hearst and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.
Directed by David Fincher, Mank shows us the two months Mankiewicz spent bedridden while writing Citizen Kane under an intense deadline. It is rated R, mostly because of its portrayal of Mank’s debilitating alcoholism. It seems the MPAA doesn’t think your kids should watch a man humiliate himself with absolute dependency on alcohol.
I actually quite approve of Mank’s portrayal of the main character’s alcoholism. Mankiewicz himself never actually questions it, sees it as a problem, or makes any attempt to recover from it. In fact, a different character has an arc in which they have to accept his alcoholism and his right as a grown, responsible person to poison himself. But, Mank also shows some of the consequences a lifetime of substance abuse can have and leaves viewers to make their own judgements.
I enjoyed Mank and have a lot of praise to give it. Always a great director, Fincher attempts to emulate the film style of the 1940s in which events take place and consequently makes a film that is often fun and always pleasant to behold.
The entire cast is perfect. Oldman is one of the most adaptable talents in acting.
Dance perhaps could never play anything other than the most powerful man in the room – we’ll never know because that’s all he’s ever cast as and he’s perfect at it.
Seyfried plays a 1940s hollywood starlet, surprisingly in a way so different from 2020s hollywood starlet that I didn’t realize it was her for half the movie.
The narrative pacing is fresh and keeps the viewer’s interest perfectly over its two-hour, 11-minute runtime. It does so by also seeking to emulate Kane specifically, jumping around events in Mankiewicz’s life.
One should not hastily fault “true story” movies for embellishing details, or ignoring them altogether, in service of telling a story that will fit cinematically in a two-hour film. However, one should perhaps fault a movie when its thesis hangs on these details. As much as I enjoyed Mank, I regret to advise you to take its portrayal of the Mankiewicz-Welles relationship with a grain of salt.
The film is heavily inspired by a 1971 essay called “Raising Kane” by Pauline Kale, which has had its truthfulness called into question by scholars ever since its publication.
Whether you believe Mankiewicz deserved credit alone for writing the classic film, or you’ve listened to the scholars and think Welles is currently rightfully honored: it’s ultimately about which rich dead guy gets the most credit for insulting another rich dead guy. Also, Welles did star in, produce and direct Citizen Kane and pioneered various techniques of filmmaking while doing so – whether or not his pen ever hit the paper.
Finally, Mank is quite involved in the politics of that era and therefore also our own. I personally believe art might be inseparable from politics, but some people may not agree with this film’s specific type of politics. If you’re tired of that kind of thing and just looking to unwind, maybe leave Mank in your watchlist a little while longer.
Overall, I love everything I’ve seen from Fincher, and Mank is no exception.
I give it an A-.