From acclaimed director David Fincher in his first film since 2014’s Gone Girl comes the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles’ partner in writing (or is he?) for the script of the legendary film Citizen Kane. The film stars veteran character actor Gary Oldman in the title role along with a supporting cast rounded out by Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Charles Dance as famous newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. With this talent, Mank sets out to recreate the Golden Age of Hollywood that influenced one of the men behind Citizen Kane.
The film’s direction and screenplay invoke the style and format that made Citizen Kane into the influential classic it is. Obviously, Fincher made the film blackand white to look like a 1940s film. A reoccurring technique that Fincher uses is a deep focus, as he frames his subjects from angles to make one look larger compared to another subject, a technique also commonly used in Citizen Kane. Unlike many modern filmmakers that will just make their film black and white and call it a day, Fincher uses similar lighting techniques of old black-and-white films in order to create striking visual images despite the lack of color.
Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, wrote the screenplay for Mank in the late 1990s and he clearly structured his script in a similar way to Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’ original movie framed its story through an investigation and Kane’s life is told through a series of flashbacks. The framing device of Mank is Mank’s writing binge as he writes Citizen Kane and then flashbacks to various points throughout his career.
Of course, a unique story structure is nothing without a compelling subject to follow, and Mank is that subject to latch on to. Mank is an eccentric man who does not fit into a Hollywood in the movie’s world. He is an alcoholic and serial gambler, often getting himself into trouble with his colleagues. Yet, he’s incredibly witty and observant. He’s not afraid to challenge the status quo that his colleagues want to enforce, even if it damages his wallet and reputation.
So, the movie is not lacking a central protagonist for viewers to be fascinated in. It’s not hard to see why Mank went on to write Citizen Kane. Like Mank, Citizen Kane was outside the box for conventional Hollywood films, with its nonlinear narrative and use of multiple narrators. Mank was not afraid to share his unpopular opinions to the detriment of his career, like how Citizen Kane’s treatment of Hearst hurt its box office chances. So Mank seemed like the perfect choice to bring the unconventional and controversial story of Citizen Kane to life.
Not only does Mank inform viewers on what kind of man Mank was, but it demonstrates what 1930s Hollywood was like through its articulate recreation of the period. However, it does anything but glamorize it. Mank demonstrates the kind of men that controlled Hollywood: rich and powerful businessmen who cared more about their own profits than artistic and moral integrity. Mank discovered how they had too much influence in politics and manipulate the public, which lead him to turn on Hearst.
One gripe with Mank is that its side characters are not nearly as interesting as its main subject. Surprisingly, Dance is only in a handful of scenes as Hearst. Most of the other characters in the film are one-note and do not get enough screen time to get fleshed out. The notable exception is Marion Davies, the friend of Mank and mistress of Hearst, who is wonderfully portrayed by Seyfried. Davies is the only character with a lively
personality to match Mank and leave an impression on viewers.
Orson Welles fans may also not appreciate how the film portrays Mank as the primary writer of Citizen Kane. There is much debate among film scholars on whether Mank or Welles contributed more to the film’s script. Mank makes the argument that it was Mank whose life experiences and unconventional thinking influenced the script.
While Mank offers cinephiles a fascinating look into the world of 1930s Hollywood, casual viewers may struggle to connect with the subject matter. A common complaint about Citizen Kane is that the movie is cold and lacks a strong emotional core for viewers to latch onto, and this complaint can be leveled at Mank as well. Another issue with Mank is that even though it offers an insightful look into the era and the character, it struggles to justify why this story needed to be told. Viewers will learn history, but they may not take away why they need to know this piece of history. But for other viewers, just living in this world for two hours should be enough to satisfy their inner film geek.
Mank is masterfully made on a technical level, with superb direction from Fincher and gorgeous black and white cinematography that recreates the aesthetic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. While it may not be accessible to all viewers, it sure provides a pleasant and fascinating experience for cinephiles. Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.