Citizen Kane is justifiably regarded as one of the great American films. But who was the real genius behind the 1941 classic? According to David Fincher’s new film, Mank, it was not Orson Welles, but screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fincher, working from a script penned by his late father and peppered with liberal doses of poetic license, takes a close look at Mankiewicz’s personal tragedies and political grievances from which a bona fide masterpiece supposedly emerged.
We first meet Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, as he arrives in Victorville, California, circa 1940. Commissioned by the brilliant 24-year old Orson Welles, Mank, as his friends like to call him, is preparing to hunker down to write the first draft of what will become Citizen Kane. Bedridden with a recently broken leg, he can’t do much else. Moments later, we jump back in time to 1930 Hollywood where Mank is enjoying life as one of the highest paid screenwriters. A cadre of legendary wordsmiths shares his office space. There’s Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perlman, and Shelly Metcalf. Wait a minute, Shelly Metcalf? Who is Shelly Metcalf? It turns out he’s a fabrication, totally made up and inserted into the story to provide a tragic subplot that explains why Mank, as a form of revenge, based the central character of Citizen Kane on William Randolph Hearst. Even though Mank is marketed as a biography, historical accuracy is not its strong suit.
The film continues to jump around in time to fill in Mank’s backstory, occasionally checking in on his progress in Victorville. The non-linear narrative, snappy dialog, and striking, black and white cinematography with smoky, noir-ish lighting are obvious aesthetic nods to Citizen Kane. But whereas Citizen Kane tries to pull us into its story, Mank works overtime to keep its audience at arms length with layers of artifice that constantly remind us that we’re watching a movie, making it Fincher’s most contrived film to date; the dialog, whether delivered in a room or outdoors, always has a slight echo to it, as if everything was shot on a soundstage; title cards that orient us to sudden changes in date and location are typed out across the screen like pages from a script, complete with carriage returns; the score, written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, calls attention to itself and doesn’t always harmonize with what’s on-screen. Mank tries hard to be cinematic ambrosia, but, like a beautiful cake with too much frosting, it doesn’t entirely satisfy, even though it looks amazing.
However, Mank does feature one of Gary Oldman’s finest performances. Oldman, despite being twenty years too old for the part, inhabits the compulsive gambling, hard drinking, silver-tongued Mankiewicz with such skillful ease, when his character is shown in front of a microphone holding the Oscar statuette for his contribution to Citizen Kane it feels like a prophetic sneak preview of the next Academy Awards show.
Film scholars have been quick to point out Mank’s historical inaccuracies, and there’s ample evidence confirming Orson Welles was, in fact, the genius behind Citizen Kane, not Herman J. Mankiewicz. But the case could be made that Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Mankiewicz is the genius behind Mank.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.