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'Mank' review: Drunk history and 'Citizen Kane'

David Fincher's film about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz immerses itself in old Hollywood lore but might be difficult to access for a modern audience

Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in 'Mank'
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in 'Mank'

Among other things, Mank might be one of the nicer things a son has done for a father in the movies. David Fincher’s father, Jack, wrote the screenplay. They tried to get it made, unsuccessfully, and Jack died in 2003. Then, in 2019, Fincher announced it as his next film. It’s out now on Netflix—the story of Herman Mankiewicz drying out on a ranch in the Mojave desert and writing Citizen Kane. It's also the story of a man to whom writing clever comes easy wondering if he’s ever written something good.

Like Kane, Mank starts with a broken man in bed and proceeds to delve into his past. Mankiewicz was an alcoholic and a gambler, and it was Welles, then a wunderkind of radio and theatre, who sent him to the ranch with a secretary and a nurse and no alcohol, to recover from a broken leg and write. Liquor eventually made its way there, but the plan worked, with Mankiewicz turning in over 300 pages in the allotted 60 days. Interspersed with his pained progress are flashbacks—the text on screen resembling instructions in a shooting screenplay—to earlier in the decade, with Mankiewicz part of the brilliant, unruly posse of newspapermen-turned-screenwriters who defined the Hollywood of the 1930s.

The irony, of course, is that Mank at his most miserable produced the one work everyone remembers him by (Welles would have been successful whether or not he’d made Kane). That it doesn’t dawn on Mankiewicz until late that he’s working on something substantial, that he finally realizes it and asks for the screenwriting credit he was forgoing, lends the film a poignance that’s accentuated when one thinks of Fincher’s father writing this in his sixties. “What year is it?” a plastered Mank asks his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton). “I should have done something by now.” Show me a writer who hasn’t said that in their twenties, thirties, forties…

The rumour ever since Fincher announced the film was that it's based on the book-length Pauline Kael piece “Raising Kane”, in which the New Yorker critic argued (among other things) that Mank had a larger hand in the writing of the film than Welles. Though the piece has some wonderful writing on '30s comedies and about Welles himself, it was seen as an attack on the director and many of Kael’s theories were rebutted (some by Welles, via acolyte Peter Bogdanovich). The film certainly seems to draw on the piece for its anecdotes—Herman saying “The white wine came up with the fish” after he throws up, for instance—but ends before the Kane script goes into revision. In other words, aside from a line at the end, it's not interested in who wrote how much of Citizen Kane.

While the focus is on Mankiewicz, the film also shines a light on another forgotten real-life figure wrapped up in the Kane mythos. Marion Davies was an actress, the mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and a friend of Mank’s. Since everyone recognized Hearst as the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, it was assumed that Susan, the chorus girl whom Kane falls for in the film, was Davies. “One can sometimes hurt one’s enemies, but that’s nothing compared to what one can do to one’s friends,” Kael wrote, adding that, through the vapid figure of Susan, “Marion Davies was nailed to the cross of harmless stupidity and nothingness”. But Amanda Seyfried plays Davies as the charming, funny hostess she was, a vivid performance that challenges us to see her as something other than a victim or a punchline. “Marion Antoinette… marionette,” Mankiewicz mutters – but she isn’t.

For those familiar with Welles’ movie—most of humanity, one would like to believe—there is enough spot-the-reference material to keep that 10-second rewind button in frequent play. Deep focus compositions abound, a technique made famous by Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland, in which the background and foreground are both clear. In several scenes, beams of light cut the room into ribbons, another visual motif from Kane. During Mank’s trips to San Simeon, Hearst’s pleasure palace, you can see things—exotic animals, cavernous rooms—that eventually made their way into Mank’s script. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score plays wittily on Bernard Hermann’s classic one, though the uptempo jazz is the studio scenes is a bit too chipper.

With its rat-a-tat dialogue and screwball performances, Mank is Fincher’s most eager-to-please work, but also the least likely to succeed. It’s in black and white, and not the lustrous black and white of Roma or Cold War. The acting is deliberately 1930s. The one well-known personality, Orson Welles, is a peripheral figure. There’s no stunt casting: Oldman (wonderfully weary as Mankiewicz), Seyfried, and Charles Dance as Hearst will be familiar to most, but only those who saw The Souvenir will recognize Tom Burke (playing Welles), and it’s unlikely anyone will know Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer), Ferdinand Kingsley (excellent as Irving Thalberg), Tom Pelphrey (Joseph Mankiewicz) or Sam Troughton (John Houseman).

This is a film wholly absorbed in the Hollywood of the 1930s. It makes no concessions if you don’t know about Mayer or Thalberg or Hearst. You need to understand why Herman cracks up when his brother Joseph tells him things are so bad “F Scott Fitzgerald is referring to you as a ruined man.” When, in an early scene, Charles Lederer meets, for the first time, Ben Hecht, S.J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman and Charles Macarthur, it’s a funny but commonplace scene unless you know that you’re seeing the authors of Scarface, A Night At The Opera, Notorious, His Girl Friday, Twentieth Century and Kane together in one room. A major plot strand concerns writer Upton Sinclair’s run for governor of California in 1934, and Mank’s uncharacteristic investment in it. Resonances with the present day notwithstanding—the American public’s perennial mistrust of socialism, fake news circulated by Sinclair’s rival—the connection to Mankiewicz, never the politically active sort, might stem from something more basic. As someone tells him at San Simeon: “You always side with the writer.”

Mank sides with the writer too. There’s a point in the film when Mankiewicz is done with the script, but doesn’t care what happens to it or whether he gets credit. “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination,” he says. “Where he takes it, that’s his job.” How he goes from there to asking for the writing credit that’ll ensure his place in history is a touching progression that’s all the more surprising coming from a director’s director like Fincher. To adapt a line from Citizen Kane, Mank promises the war and then supplies the prose poems.

Mank is streaming on Netflix.

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