It’s finally here. Heralded by a bristle of excitement by cineastes, and likely to be greeted by a wave of indifference by everyone else, David Fincher’s latest film landed on Netflix and in a few cinemas. As you’re probably aware, it concerns Herman J. Mankiewicz aka Mank, the man credited as co-author of Citizen Kane, played impeccably by Gary Oldman. By taking on this subject matter, it has reopened the longstanding controversy of Kane’s authorship. It’s a strange film that often doesn’t quite hit the mark in either story or style, although many of the individual scenes are very enjoyable and it depicts a fascinating world.
Some background. Orson Welles, then a boy wonder riding high on the infamous radio adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds’, signed a two-film contract by RKO which stipulated that he would act, direct, produce and write them. He would be guaranteed full creative control, would select the cast and crew and have final cut with no studio interference.
Welles developed the idea for Kane with Mank, a successful and prolific screenwriter contracted to Paramount Pictures. The story would be loosely based on the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst (played here by a regal Charles Dance). Mank had been part of Hearst inner circle, his witty and occasionally acerbic opinions amused Hearst at his frequent social gatherings in his San Simeon mansion (the Xanadu in Kane), and Mank formed a close platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife Marion Davies. But he grew to despise Hearst, feeling he was patronised as the court jester. Although the Mank and Welles always denied it, everyone including Hearst interpreted the resulting film as a thinly veiled attack.
When Citizen Kane was released its screenplay was credited to both Mank and Welles and the pair jointly won the film’s only Oscar for their work. But that wasn’t the original plan; initially Mank was to have been a silent partner, credited as ‘script advisor’ only as Welles was fearful that RKO might consider the collaboration to be a breach of contract. In Hollywood there were plenty who resented the precocious 26-year-old being granted such unprecedented creative control and would relish any opportunity to take him down.
In 1971, The New Yorker published Pauline Kael’s long essay ‘Raising Kane‘ that profiled Mank and asserted he was the sole author of the screenplay. At the time many considered Citizen Kane to be Welles’s only notable film and Kael’s accusation reinforced suspicions that its innovations were mostly due to Welles’s creative collaborators rather than the wunderkind director.
Kael’s assertion has since been discredited, most convincingly by Robert Carringer’s ‘The Scripts of Citizen Kane’, which analysed multiple drafts of the screenplay and concluded that Welles’s contributions were substantial and his screenwriting credit was entirely justified. But the damage was done and Welles would be personally wounded. It’s fun to see Welles later parody Kael in Susan Strasberg’s character in The Other Side of the Wind.
Mank seems to perpetuate Kael’s myth, although as much by omission as outright assertion. It shows Mank labouring over the screenplay – in fact it’s central to the film – but Welles is a largely absent figure, a distance voice at the end of a phone line or an occasional cameo visitor to Mank’s hideaway. Tom Burke, who I last saw in Joanna Hogg’s wonderful The Souvenir, gives a credible impersonation and captured Welles’s unmistakable voice, although at age 39 he did seem a little too old to be playing a 26-year-old.
The script makes Welles a caricature, a bully and egotist. It’s what Mank doesn’t show that’s important here. We don’t see Welles and Mank spending weeks together developing the ideas. Nor do we see Welles giving Mank 300 pages of notes before Mank begins work on the draft. The eight week period when Welles substantially reworked Mank’s final draft together with John Houseman (Kane‘s producer and a frequent Welles collaborator) is barely acknowledged by a mere throwaway line.
With these omissions we are left with the strong impression that Mankiewicz was the sole author of Kane, and that’s misleading if not outright deceitful on Fincher’s part.
It’s useful to recall John Houseman’s oft-quoted statement in a Sight & Sound interview: “the script of Kane was essentially Mankiewicz’s. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom he had been carrying around with him for years and which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned Kane into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects — all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make Citizen Kane one of the world’s great movies — those were pure Orson Welles”.
Mank isn’t interested in the shooting of Kane, in the visuals, the energy, the directorial flare; there are countless books discussing its magnificent innovations. Instead, it considers how Mankiewicz’s experiences with Hearst found their way into the script and seeks to re-establish his place in the history of Hollywood. But this central thread is actually the least successful element of the film.
The story is based around a 60-day period when Mank, recovering from a broken leg due to a car crash, was holed-up in the desert hideaway in Victorville, California to write the ‘first’ draft of Kane under the watchful eye of a pair of female guardians. There are plenty of scenes of bed-ridden, hard-drinking Mank wallowing in a darkened room. But this is merely a framing device to a sequence of events from Mank’s Hollywood career past, some of which providing inspiration for Kane. The flashbacks are pleasingly meandering, including on-set exploits, parties with the glitterati of the day, and curiously the 1934 California gubernatorial election. The latter is an oddly ironic inclusion, depicting how MGM created fake newsreels to discredit the left-wing political candidate – this in a film that itself deliberately perpetuates falsehoods.
Mank is a Netflix production, and David Fincher has established an ongoing relationship with the streaming giant. He was the producer and sometime director for House of Cards and Love, Death and Robots and showrunner for the excellent Mindhunter series. He recently signed a four-year deal and it seems this relationship with Netflix allowed Fincher to effectively choose his own projects (ironically echoing Welles’s own carte blanche with RKO). This would always be a project of niche appeal, but Netflix has history with Welles, funding the post-humous completion The Other Side of the Wind, a project that had been fruitlessly gestating for years before Netflix stepped in with funding.
However, it’s Fincher’s personal connection that drives this project, the belated filming of a long-unrealised script by his deceased father Jack Fincher. This seems to have been a labour of love, the script revised and developed over several years. Although Jack Fincher is the only credited scriptwriter, David Fincher has acknowledged that there were a few rewrites to soften the criticism of Welles.
It’s clearly a well-researched script although not everything is entirely accurate, but of course this is not a documentary. The dialogue drops passing references to all manner of movie trivia including Welles’s abandoned attempt to film Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (later the source for Apocalypse Now, of course), The Wizard of Oz (Mank was an uncredited screenwriter) and of course the salacious rumour behind the true meaning of ‘Rosebud’. There’s admittedly an ‘easter egg’ pleasure to be derived in recognising these references, although I suspect they might become tiresome to a more general viewer.
The instances where Mank encounters situations that he would then work into his script were a little less successful and on-the-nose including an election night scene and (most clumsily) a contrived furniture-throwing tantrum by Welles mirroring Kane’s despair when his wife leaves him. And the film’s structure, a cascade of chronological flashbacks to tell the tale of a man, superficially echoes Citizen Kane‘s own, although with notably less sophistry. The flashbacks themselves are usually fascinating, but the ranch scenes quickly become repetitive, with endless closeups on Mank’s notebook and a subplot involving Lily Collins that feels like padding. In fact I’d go as far to say the scenes that concern the creative genesis of Kane are the least successful in the film.
Nevertheless, we get to visit the Paramount lot in its Hollywood heyday, see MGM’s studio head Louis Mayer as a showman and an authoritarian, see the A-list of the silver screen in their privileged cocoon. And the scenes set at Hearst’s estate at San Simeon use some stunning sets, clearly based on the opulent excesses of the actual building.
Refreshingly, the script isn’t afraid to have a large cast of supporting characters, rather than the usual scriptwriting conceit of merging multiple characters into single amalgams. It depicts the key players in the Hollywood studio system, Hearst’s inner circle and Welles’s own coterie.
Many of the individual flashback scenes are deliciously entertaining, using the large cast of characters to great ensemble effect such as an early scene of vulpine studio writers, playing ‘catch’ with improvised script ideas. And later, at a party at Hearst’s vast San Simeon temple, the fashionable guests trading witticisms and sophisticated opinions to entertain their host and one another. Fincher’s directing keeps pace with the rapid repartee, the camera shots and editing are fluid and understated, a masterclass in technical craft.
Gary Oldman is very good as Mank, playing the alcoholic screenwriter with subtlety and depth, at once wily and self-destructive, as both a charismatic contrarian and a piteous washed-out court jester. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance. Again, Oldman is too old (he’s 62 playing a character in his thirties), but it doesn’t seem to matter and that premature aging seems to reinforce Mank’s world-weary dejection.
Perhaps where the film most comes alive is in the several playful scenes between Mank and Marion Davies, Hearst’s wife (played by Amanda Seyfried who I last enjoyed in First Reformed). Davies became Mank’s close friend and confidante, enjoying his wit and rebelliousness (in real life, as well as in the movie). In a film about betrayal – Mank’s betrayal of Hearst, Welles’s (alleged) betrayal of Mank – the cruellest is by Mank when he viciously parodies Davies in the Kane script as a mediocre and unsophisticated performer trumped up beyond her ability by her demanding husband, a mere possession. Marion Davies was far from that.
This betrayal hits hard us because for their scenes together are so charming. Seyfried plays Marion as sophisticated, knowing and witty, and with an irresistible charisma. She lights up the screen, and the mutual admiration and warmth of their relationship is a delight, particularly in an extended nocturnal scene when they wander the grounds of Hearst’s private zoo. We can understand the motive behind Mankiewicz’s attack on Hearst, but it remains a mystery why he was so harsh to Marion, a question the film voices rhetorically, almost bewilderingly.
Remarkably, Fincher made the film replicate the look and feel of 1930s movies. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (Gone Girl, Mindhunter) shot the film digitally before it was converted to look like a black-and-white film; it would have lost much of its sense of time and place had it been shown in colour. There are small conceits, such as fake reel-change marks in the top-right corner of the frame, and pretend hairline filmstock damage, but not enough to seem overly pleased with itself.
I couldn’t quite decide if the style was meant to replicate or parody Welles’s style in Kane. It seems to play with inventive framing, rapid pacing and fast editing (which was more of a characteristic in Welles’s later films), but while it’s pleasing the film doesn’t get quite close enough to Welles’s own style. The widescreen cinematography is striking, there are lots of very dark interior scenes with bright backdrops, presumably to emulate Greg Tolland’s incredible camerawork in Kane but these insistent high-contrast scenes were often more visually reminiscent of the work of Stephen Spielberg’s divisive cinematographer Janusz Kamiński . While it’s impressive and sets the tone, this is perhaps overused in Mank and never matches the jaw-dropping inventiveness or expressionism of the academy-ratio original. The digital sheen makes it look modern and a little flat. I enjoyed the film’s style, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was simultaneously trying too hard and yet not trying hard enough.
The music by Nine Inch Nails partnership of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is functional. As film composers the pair are musical chameleons, straying far from the industrial rock of their day jobs to give us a score influenced by Bernard Hermann (Kane as Hermann’s first film) and by cool 1930s smoky nightclub jazz, via a spritely rip-off of Leroy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter’, a rather obvious evocation of the studio scriptwriting pools. The music is mostly a good fit, although I felt some of the jazz cues felt a little too modern, closer to a bebop pastiche than trad. The sound design, like in many of Fincher’s films, is deliberately murky, the dialogue often submerged by a bad mix and in this case an overuse of stylistic reverb, particularly incongruous in outdoor scenes, which made the audio tiring even in the cinema.
So in the end, what remains? A film that can’t seem to decide if it’s a pastiche or a homage, but without the panache of the movie it seems to be echoing. A film that perpetuates a discredited myth that tried to unjustly deny Welles his authorial credit.
But it’s also a film with some wonderful moments, that revels in the romance of Hollywood’s golden age, rich in detail (even if that detail is not always accurate), has some crackling dialogue and features some great performances – not least from Seyfried and Oldman who make a charming odd couple.
It’s a curio for sure, and perversely it will surely frustrate the Welles afficionados who are most likely its target audience. But it’s clearly a personal labour of love for Fincher and despite its many flaws I enjoyed it.
Some further reading:
Pauline Kael’s discredited ‘Raising Kane’ essay in The New Yorker
Joseph McBride’s ‘Mank and the Ghost of Christmas Future’ – a history of how Welles has been portrayed in film: Wellesnet.com
Patricia Hutchinson’s insightful ‘Mank (2020): A Short Note About Marion Davies’ on SilentLondon.co.uk
Mank was released to selected UK cinemas on 3rd December, and to Netflix on 4th December 2020.