Citizen Kane is generally considered to be quite a good film, if you believe, well, just about anyone past the initial point of release. A recent re-watch reminded me just why: aside from the, then, fancy new camera techniques and the manner in which is the film plays with traditional structure, it’s a genuinely brilliant story of obsession, ego and a unfulfilled desire to reclaim lost innocence. Citizen Kane may not quite deserve its almost meme-ish reputation as the greatest film ever made, but it certainly deserves its monolithic place in film history.
“The story behind the story” is a sometimes trite sub-genre of biopic, but the background of how Citizen Kane came to be be is a genuinely fascinating tale all of its own. Between how much the film was based on William Randolph Hearst’s life and the dispute between the two men credited as its writers, there is plenty of drama to be mined. More than any of that, Herman J. Mankiewicz was one of the wittiest men of his generation, who left an indelible mark on a very romanticised period of Hollywood history: with one of our finest living actors in the role, and one of our best directors, Mank was something that I was always going to want to see.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a 1930’s/40’s script writer/doctor with an addiction problems and an acid tongue. While recuperating from a car accident, he is hired by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write a screenplay for an ambitious new film: dictating to his secretary Rita (Lily Collins), “Mank” reaches into his experiences in Hollywood for inspiration, specifically his relationship with magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). The result is one of the most controversial scripts of the era.
It’s hard to know what to make of Mank. It’s an expose of Hollywood, it’s an examination of how Citizen Kane was written (and by whom) and it’s a biopic of Mankiewicz, all in one neat two hour package, but I never really felt like I got Fincher’s point fully. By that I mean that Mank is a tad directionless: the general gist is an examination of just why Mankiewicz wrote the script that he did, but the route to the end destination is so torturous that you struggle to really care about the answer when it comes, when the answer itself is so obvious. Through a format that, of course, is taken wholesale from Citizen Kane itself – a present day framing narrative interspersed with lengthy flashbacks that cover a long enough period, with monologues for all – we do get a number of interesting points about Mankiewicz life, but in many ways we don’t really know anything new about him by the time that the credits roll that we didn’t know in the first twenty minutes. “Hollywood screenwriter hates Hollywood” doesn’t cut it.
There is a listlessness in Mank that detracts. Many scenes and sequences are elongated out unnecessarily so that Fincher can soak up some scenery: Mank awakening from a bender and stumbling onto a Hollywood film shoot early on is one such example, but the scenery soaking suffers a little bit from the lack of colour. The main drama of the exercise changes suddenly in the last twenty minutes to one of authorship of the script, and lacking the time to go into the finer details of why things ended up the way that they did leaves the outline of affairs a little confusing (they never explain why someone like Mank would not want credit in the first place). Burke is fun as Welles, but we don’t see enough of him.
These sections may be part of a jab the director is making at a Hollywood machine he has had plenty of criticisms of recently, as he becomes one of the central players in a genre of filmmakers happy to embrace, instead of decry, streaming. The political sub-plot is important in terms of Mank’s motivation later in the film, essentially a very elongated way of Mank realising he has to stand-up a bit to the machine he is oiling with every script, but the real inciting incident involves a character that we have barely met and, when you take this long to get to the point, the point tends to just raise eyebrows. Citizen Kane could do it, but Mank can’t.
But of course it isn’t a bad film. For one it’s remarkably funny, with characters here that fit every inch the popular perception of an era overflowing with wits. Mank, on his animosity with Louis B. Mayer, suggests “If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting in my lap.” Mank’s brother, Joe, has to let the latest writing acolyte know that Mank’s telegram “There are millions to be made, and your only competition is idiots” is sent to “anyone who can rub three words together”. In describing a plot treatment for Frankenstein that includes the monster freezing to death, Mank proposes “And with an unseasonal thaw, a sequel”. And, in an extended drunken monologue, the title character outlines his plot for what will become Citizen Kane to Hearst himself, including a barb for Mayar: being “Notably rich and powerful, can’t win over an audience unless notably rich and powerful sees the error of his ways in the final reel. Notably rich and powerful and making no goddamn excuses for it is only admirable in real life”.
Oldman gives, as can only be expected of him at this stage, another stand-out performance. Away from more obvious Oscar-bait projects like Darkest Hour, this is the kind of part that I think is more ready made for a man of his obvious talents. It’s difficult to bring life to the wit and wisdom of a man like Mankiewicz, along with his many, many character flaws: you could sum them up neatly under the label of “lack of impulse control”, though an awkward scene in the middle involving a German immigrant suddenly raises him to angelic status. But Oldman is able to do it, with a verve in every snarky reply or clever out-down, that makes his Mank an enjoyable guy to be around, as opposed to a nasty bully that lesser actors would have made him into. God knows Fincher had plenty of material, allegedly using up to a century of takes for certain scenes.
Seyfried a liked a lot as Davies, I just wish that we had seen more of her. Collins plays a mostly nothing character, just someone for Oldman to talk to in certain scenes, and she is capable of better with better material (why did we need to have that sub-sub-plot with her Royal Navy husband?). Mank overflows with various great actors in small roles – Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s bother Joe was a stand-out in that regard, and Arliss Howard as Mayer – but in a way they too often distract from what I assume is the main point of the whole experience.
Those here for the inside scoop on Citizen Kane will probably be just a little disappointed. There is little here that you would call revelatory: Charles Dance’s Hearst isn’t really on-screen that much, and most of the heavy lifting for his portrayal is actually done of Seyfried, notable in an extended walk scene with Mankiewicz through the Hearst estate. Citizen Kane as Mank’s revenge on Hearst is certainly the final thesis – Mank appears to finally have enough of being, as several characters describe him, the “court jester” of Hearst’s entourage after a bitter California gubernatorial election where Mank’s preferred candidate is defeated – but you kind of wish that you got to see more of Marion Davies and her relation to the story: a few back-and-forths with Oldman is all that we get, and it is a tad unsatisfying.
Movies about movies always have a bit of a tightrope to walk, prone to a glorification that can be unappealing. Mank certainly doesn’t fall into this trap, showcasing a Hollywood machine that is ugly, mean-spirited, politically biased and prone to chewing people up and spitting them out as soon as any bit of use they had has been taken. Having the titular personality as our guide through that world is a good choice, as his own acerbic observations help to make the experience a more passable one. A large portion of proceedings is dedicated to MGM’s insidious involvement in efforts to win a Govenor’s race for the Republican candidate against the Democrat who wants to redistribute the wealth, and here there are undoubtedly strains of modern-day allegory in that (one remembers Citizen Kane and the “Fraud At Polls” headline, that helps keep the film culturally relevant even today).
Mank’s visual style is, of course, taken straight from the era depicted, and from Citizen Kane more specifically: you see it every precise blocking, every carefully angled shot, the use of shadow and silhouette. I don’t know what to really make of Fincher’s choices in that regard: is it homage, or is lazy, for him to basically copy-and-paste shots and cinematography choices almost directly from Welles movie? Having watched Mank I am still not sure, but it certainly makes the film look unique by today’s standards: a strange mixture of HD crispness and old-school monochrome/audio, complete with distracting “cigarette burns”, digitally inserted. At times the dichotomy can be a bit off-putting and distracting, other times it does make you appreciate just what Welles was able to do back in the 1940’s. But it doesn’t mark Mank out as one of Fincher’s better efforts in terms of visuals, just an example of how well he is able to mimic: it’s different to his usual, but not, perhaps, in a good way. A few decent musical cues complete the imitation, and while it does place you firmly enough in that era, I wouldn’t say that it was something that I myself appreciated.
Mank is undoubtedly an interesting film, and one that serves as the kind of living footnote to a greater piece of media that will somewhat cement its place in history. It also helps that Oldman is so good in the title role, and that the script does a creditable job of bringing the words and life of Mankiewicz to something resembling life themselves. But really that’s as far as it goes: the narrative is muddled in what it is trying to say, visually it feels more like a rip-off than a homage and the supporting cast is suffocated of screen-time when they aren’t actively forgettable. Mank deserves credit for veering away from the all-too-familiar surrounds of “Standing Ovation Biopic” (though it allows a teeny little bit to sneak in right at the conclusion) but even in its structure its aping the great classic. In the end this feels like a filmmakers effort to remake Citizen Kane without having to actually do it: as such, it can only be partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).