Although “Citizen Kane” is one of the most important films ever made, Hollywood history has curiously overlooked screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Best known as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” co-writer and “All About Eve” director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s older brother, Mankiewicz won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay alongside Welles in 1941. But while Welles went on to become a revered auteur, Mankiewicz’s accomplishments were largely diminished until film critic Pauline Kael’s now-debunked 1971 New Yorker feature “Raising Kane” alleged that Mankiewicz was responsible for the majority, if not the entirety, of the “Citizen Kane” script.
Though most of Kael’s claims have been rejected by subsequent scholars, David Fincher’s newest film “Mank” revives the debate surrounding the troubled authorship of “Citizen Kane.” Fincher somehow manages to make the writing process dramatically engaging; he paints Mankiewicz as the true genius behind Welles’ breakout film and focuses on Mankiewicz’s relationships with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies — the real figures behind central characters in “Citizen Kane.” The result is a deeply reflective, incisive look at not only the context behind a towering achievement of cinema but also into the very mechanics of filmmaking and the obligations filmmakers have to their audience.
“Mank” picks up in 1940, just after Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has broken his leg in a car accident. Welles hires the washed-up, now bedridden Mankiewicz to ghostwrite for his debut feature, placing him on a serene ranch with typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) to take dictation. The key stipulations are that Mankiewicz, who struggles with alcoholism, must write without drinking — and will ultimately receive no screen credit for his work.
Though much of the action sees Oldman lying in bed, the drama never stagnates. As Mankiewicz sinks deeper into the writing process, his growing sense of isolation from old Hollywood’s fame and greed becomes an avenue into flashbacks depicting Mankiewicz’s heyday and self-destructive downfall.
Based on a screenplay written in the ‘90s by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher, “Mank” is both ruminative and hilariously clever. An energetic tracking shot through the innards of MGM provides some of the film’s snappiest dialogue as Hollywood robber baron Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) explains the magic of the movies: “The buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory,” Mayer tells a starry-eyed Joe Mankiewicz. “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it to him.”
The script also captures the sharp, sardonic wit that endeared Mankiewicz to Hearst, while staying true to the realism and cynicism of an anti-romantic “Citizen Kane”-esque story. In one scene, Mankiewicz debates the threat of communism with Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), another ruthless, capitalistic movie magnate, explaining that “in socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.”
Stringing together various narrative threads and using a nonchronological structure that mirrors the shifting timeline in “Citizen Kane,” “Mank” is constructed as a cinematic tribute to the original film, but it still carries Fincher’s distinctive directorial marks. Erik Messerschmidt’s black-and-white digital cinematography is indistinguishable from the 1940s film feel — a breathtaking contrast of blacks and grays. Accompanied by regular Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brilliant period-reminiscent jazz score, “Mank” is a technical delight.
Oldman is a pedestrian choice for the titular role, and as Mankiewicz, he’s perfectly believable and dramatically adequate. The more engaging performances, however, come from Oldman’s female co-stars: Collins’s witty sarcasm wonderfully rivals Oldman’s, and Amanda Seyfried plays Davies with a depth and tenderness that dismantles Davies’s reputation as a ditzy blonde. Tuppence Middleton is also excellent as “Poor Sara” Mankiewicz, so called for her demeaning association with the hapless Mank.
Mankiewicz’s complex platonic relationship with Davies serves as the film’s emotional core, and the film’s best scenes center on the two. In an early scene, Welles’ producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) calls the “Citizen Kane” script a “hodge-podge of talky episodes”; when “Mank” weaves in and out of fragments from Mankiewicz’s past, it comes dangerously close to embodying this very criticism. But “Mank” succeeds because — like most Fincher films — it always stays attuned to the throughline of its characters’ destructive obsession, using all its stellar audiovisual elements to complement its hefty themes.
Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].