By all accounts, Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest. Twice the American Film Institute has named it #1 on their list of the 100 best films. It’s on numerous “best of” lists from renowned film critics. It’s one of only three films to have a perfect 100 rating on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It is inarguably a masterpiece and a landmark achievement in film.
So how does one tackle the enormous task of telling the story of how it came to be? Orson Welles was no doubt a genius in his own right, but contrary to the anti-labor, anti-union ending moral of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, such a monumental work of cinematic art does not come down to just one man (or two in the Coens’ case). With Mank, modern auteur David Fincher takes the intriguing approach to profile the man behind the giant Kane posters, Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the film. Using a script written by his late father Jack, Fincher molds a parallel Charles Foster Kane story out of Mankiewicz’s Hollywood career, highlighting his wit, intellect, and personal failings in a way that presents Citizen Kane as an almost autobiographical airing of grievances, all the while crafting a film in a similarly parallel style to that great film that excels on almost every level, creating a worthy origin story to one of the most beloved and scrutinized stories ever told.
Gary Oldman stars as “Mank,” holed up in a dry house (both alcohol-free and in a desert) in California, recovering from a leg injury and given a mere 60 days from Welles himself to write the first draft of the screenplay, for which he’s agreed in advance not to accept a writing credit due to his fall from grace at the major studios. Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke, who just nails Welles’ voice circa 1940) has basically been given carte blanche from RKO Pictures for his next film, and he’s leaning heavily into that creative control, attempting to micromanage every aspect, including knocking a month off of Mank’s writing schedule so that the press doesn’t get wind of the salacious story and secluding Mank away from the studios and his normal vices, though Mank has his ways around that last bit.
Much of the film’s plot jumps back and forth from the “present” day of the fall of 1940 to the old Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, where Mank wrote some of the classics we all know and love today, like The Wizard of Oz and Pride of the Yankees. He schmoozed with the best of them and knew the ins and outs of the “game,” including how to incorporate new, young writers and even get his brother Joseph (who would have his own storied career as a director) his first foot in the door.
This is very much Oldman’s film as a performer, but unlike other leading showcases, the supporting cast is exceptional on their own. Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones) plays a jovial William Randolph Hearst, the man upon whom Charles Foster Kane was based. Amanda Seyfried puts in a career-best performance as acclaimed actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies. Arliss Howard (Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket, my all-time favorite film) has an excellent turn as MGM studio head Louis Mayer. Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) plays Mank’s secretary, Rita Alexander (the inspiration for the name Susan Alexander Kane), who has more agency and character development than just about any support/servant role I’ve seen of late.
And then there’s Oldman himself. There are shades of his Winston Churchill voice peppered in with his wiseguy chutzpah (to the point where I had a meta giggle about him casually mocking British soldiers at the onset of World War II before the US joined the effort), but the way he carries himself from scene to scene is nothing short of masterful. He’s one of the greatest living character actors for a reason, and it’s on full display for most of the proceedings. Thematically, he serves as a cypher for Kane himself, often being too smart for his own good, alienating those he loves with destructive behavior or his outright smug sense of superiority, but ultimately lonely due to his own obsessive need to be loved and to be right in all things.
It’s a performance that commands attention because Mank, like Kane, is a textbook example of one who simply doesn’t know how to pick his battles. I share the same issue, mostly because whenever someone uses the phrase, “pick your battles,” it’s always implied that the rest of the phrase is, “but not this one.” It’s something I’ve dealt with for years, and I’ve burned a few bridges in my time because I couldn’t stop myself. Charles Kane had this problem in the film because of his lost innocence and his pathological need for affection/worship. Mank has this problem because he’s one idealistic person working in a system that protects its own interests above all others, as evidenced by Louis Mayer asking MGM workers to take a 50% pay cut during the depression (without taking one himself) or Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) producing propaganda films with unemployed actors to promote the candidacy of Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Merriam over author Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye in a wide-shot cameo). Again, this is Irving fucking Thalberg. The Academy has an award named in his honor, and this is the shit he pulled. These are the forces Mank fights against the entire way, and as the film presents, informs his script for Citizen Kane, which is both hilarious and tragic depending on the scene, but a 100% genuine-feeling performance. A friend of mine who also works in entertainment once put it to me, “You can either be right or be employed.” That’s what Mank goes through whenever he butts heads with the higher-ups, no matter how smart he is in countering their elitist arguments.
The presentation of the film is itself an endeavor to give us a Kane-like experience, as many of the same techniques used 80 years ago are on display here. It’s in black and white (something that David Fincher insisted upon when he tried to make this movie 20 years ago but studios wouldn’t agree to at the time), with a few scenes shot day-for-night, including a poignant conversation between Mank and Davies. A lot of the production design also matches the classic film, including the fireplace at San Simeon (Hearst Castle) that looks like a slightly smaller version of the one from Xanadu. Some scenes are shot in similar manners to the movie’s counterpart, like a scene where Mank sits on the porch talking to his brother Joseph (soap opera actor Tom Pelphrey) that evokes the interviews with Jedediah Leland at his retirement home. In a drunken stupor, Mank drops a liquor bottle from the side of his bed the same way Kane dropped the snowglobe. All of this is set to a fantastic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, using only era-appropriate instrumentation.
There are only a couple of elements that didn’t really work for me, but on the whole they’re minor. In an attempt to recreate the lighting design of the 1940s, there are a few scenes that show up too dark, and I don’t think it was intended. The day-for-night sequences work really well, but some of the more natural lighting schemes left some of the cast completely covered in shadow for no noticeable thematic reason. Also, throughout the film each flashback to Mank’s past begins with an establishing text written in screenplay format. It’s a stylistic choice that feels a little tacked on, and it’s not entirely consistent, particularly towards the end, when the scene shifts back to one particular moment three times for an over-the-top moral lesson for Mank that I don’t think was really needed. The subtext of the entire film is marvelous, so to have it thrown in our faces in the final act seemed out of place. But again, these are minor flaws in an otherwise wonderful display.
Most who’ve seen Citizen Kane know what a grand achievement it was, despite it losing Best Picture to… *checks notes* … How Green Was My Valley (no one said the Academy was perfect). It’s been parsed and analyzed more than any film in the last century, from the obvious parallels to Hearst to modern interpretations that compare Kane to the likes of Donald Trump. But for those who don’t do heavy research, it’s easy to see the film as a reflection of Orson Welles both as a person and as an artist. Mank seeks to clarify the record somewhat and give us some unexpected method to the long-celebrated madness, and in that vein, it succeeds immensely, from David Fincher’s style, to Oldman seeking perhaps another Oscar as a lead actor, to an outstanding supporting cast including Amanda Seyfried giving us the best we’ve ever seen of her. This is a flawed film, but Mankiewicz (and Welles, and Kane) was a flawed person, which is why such a brilliant piece of cinema could even be created in the first place. Perfect people do not make Citizen Kane, but real people working in the perfect moment do.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite classic movie, and would you like to see a cinematic “making of” type of film for it? Can I get Bill Nye to actually run for office? Let me know!