Citizen Kane is an extraordinary film for many reasons but the screenplay is especially clever, told from the perspective of an investigator who remains faceless to the viewer. He interviews several people close to the recently deceased Charles Foster Kane, trying to discover the secret of the man's dying words, their contradictory stories told in flashback. Delightfully, the key is revealed only to us, not even to our narrator. The film remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements and accepted history has Orson Welles playing the system against itself to get it made. At just 24 years old, Welles was given the power to make anything he wanted. Never again would he have such freedom.
Rather than focus on Orson Welles (Tom Burke has the perfect voice but is more a rarely seen phantom), Mank tackles his self-destructive screenwriter. On paper, it would seem a dry choice of subject for David Fincher to explore, even to Welles aficionados, but Fincher made the story of Facebook an edge of your seat drama and Mank was written by his father, Jack. Considering his work often references Welles, we're in good hands.
Fincher specialises in conflict. His disciplined approach to narrative always makes his heroes the villains, contradictory aliens within their worlds. A detective, the very antithesis of his prey; a cartoonist, investigating a serial killer. In Alien 3, the creature was welcomed while Ripley, a woman, was rejected. Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as played here is a classical Fincher character, seemingly determined to torpedo his own career. He becomes a rebel, always slightly at odds with the Hollywood elite such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) and David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore). It’s Welles who enables Mank by giving him the opportunity to write The American, as Citizen Kane was once known, and he unwisely bases the story on his relationship with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the thinly veiled inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. Allegedly.
Flipping across several timelines, the film centres on Herman holed up in a cabin, recuperating from a car accident, battling his nurse (Lilly Collins as Rita Alexander, an inspiration for a Citizen Kane character) to access alcohol while the gambler in him makes seemingly ridiculous claims for how fast he can write Orson’s first draft. Orson’s harried assistant John Houseman (Sam Troughton) has some on-the-nose dialogue when reading the notes: "the story is so jumbled you need a road map"; “the audience will get it”; "write hard, aim low" and so on. The whole production is brazen, but manages to sells it, and Gary Oldman is superb in the central role. He fully inhabits the dialogue heavy Herman as a calm, grouchy slouch and the rest of the fabulous cast revolve around him.
Especially impressive is the reading of Hearst by Charles Dance, making him more human than the history of Citizen Kane’s production has previously explored, creating a more complicated central conceit. Meanwhile, women have been poorly served in some of David Fincher’s previous films but Lily Collins holds her own in the many scenes shared with Oldman. Amanda Seyfried is wonderful in a career best turn as Marion Davies, a naive femme fatale, as is Tuppence Middleton as “poor Sara” Mankiewicz, Mank’s long suffering wife.
Jack Fincher's screenplay is a brilliant thing. It mixes up the flashback structure of Citizen Kane like a Rubik’s cube and turns it into an entertainingly angry political grenade. The focus on a Republican takeover of Hollywood in a corrupt election scrap with the Democrats gives the story a contemporary edge and gives it an energetic purpose. But the love of conflict will create dissonance in Mank for some viewers. Fincher creates harsh, uncomfortable worlds for his characters which is at odds with Citizen Kane’s magic, a film wrapped in a smooth cloak of ethereal melancholy. Still, this means Mank is no tribute act and largely avoids pastiche, but for glorious film-nerd baiting opening credits; plus the odd frame jump and cigarette burn. It’s a disciplined and mature piece of work.
Both Citizen Kane and Mank feature flashbacks that lack coherence, as they should, while the narrative coagulates around a single question. In this case, why would Mank shit on his own doorstep by writing about Hearst? (Interesting how Welles is traditionally the assassin but here we see Mank given the room to make the bullets). His self destructive act(s) is the polar opposite of Kane's sentimental solution. The punch lands slower, less distinctively, but it does still land.
Smoky, gorgeous black and white cinematography, courtesy of Erik Messerschmidt, with whom Fincher has worked before on Gone Girl, is married to faultless sets, rich in period detail. The first part of the film especially feels like it belongs in the 1930s and is a joy to wallow in, watching a fantastic cast chew scenery, especially Arliss Howard’s Louis B. Mayer. It makes for an unexpected companion to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood; interesting that Hollywood is in a retrospective mood.
David Fincher has referenced Orson Welles before in his films but he throws everything into Mank with Wellesian angles, focus pulls, the odd bit of rear projection and even Lady of Shanghai trippiness and a Quixote reference squeezed in for good measure. It’s a wordy film, with sing-song dialogue, and it should be too much for the relatively modest two-hour running time. But Fincher seamlessly marries the anachronisms with his own well honed techniques and the result is an entertaining nostalgic trip with a point to make all of its own.
Completing the spell is another playful but admirably understated score from musical chameleons and frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. A gorgeous end credit melody is a nice reflection on the opening bravado. You can hear some snippets at the brilliantly titled www.thewhitewinecameupwiththefish.com website, referencing one of the standout scenes.
Beware the Emporer’s new clothes? Not at all. Disconnected from Citizen Kane, Mank still blossoms. You might question what the point is, what does it really achieve? But it’s an acerbic take on Hollywood(Land)'s Golden Age, masterfully directed by Fincher who’s modus operandi is to find the screws to turn that other director’s miss. Hollywood has had it’s fair share of conflicts and the storm that apparently inspired Orson Welles’ debut proves to have a scarily contemporary relevance almost 80 years later. Like it's progenitor, Mank is a dense, ambitious work that never takes itself as seriously as those who watch it.
Mank is available to watch on Netflix from December 4.