There have been any number of historical films about film making, generally focussing on a particular celebrated film maker. Last year Netflix gave us Dolemite is My Name and going back we’ve had The Disaster Artist, Ed Wood, Saving Mr. Banks, Hitchcock and probably the best, at least in terms of showing the mechanics of cinema, Chaplin. Mank, which provides some of the background behind the creation of Citizen Kane, is not really one of these types of films though. It does provide a captivating character study of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz but it only briefly steps onto a film set.
If anything Mank is initially more reminiscent of Hail Caesar!. Like the Coen’s movie it starts off moving through entertainingly jaunty scenes in studio offices and backlots but providing very little real drama. After about half an hour though it becomes clear quite what Mankiewicz is writing in his famous screenplay and why and at this point it becomes something very different and altogether more engaging.
It is no secret that Citizen Kane is a thinly veiled but harsh critique of American businessman, newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst. In fact I would suggest that Hearst is now more famous as the apparent subject of Orson Welles’ celebrated movie than he is for anything else. What Mank shows though, through a series of flashbacks interspersing the writing process and the early response to the script, are the reasons that Mankiewicz decided to author this character assassination. In doing this it also questions the extent to which Citizen Kane is actually Orson Welles’ movie.
Much of the brilliance of Citizen Kane is undoubtedly down to Welles’ direction but the writing is also fantastic. Arguably it is the story and dialogue that really sets it apart as much of the shooting techniques and framing that it is heralded for had been seen in other films, including How Green Was My Valley that beat it to Best Picture at the Oscars but has not gone down in Hollywood history the same way. If anything, without the story to support it, Citizen Kane is a little heavy on the camera tricks. The screenplay, that did win the film’s one Academy Award, is credited to Mankiewicz and Welles but the edict here is that young Orson did not earn having his name on the script, or indeed the statuette.
Whether or not this is true has been debated since Herman Mankiewicz himself first suggested it in the 40s. You could argue that it is odd that a writer of such skill wouldn’t be known for multiple works like Dalton Trumbo or Robert Towne but this was a different time and Mankiewicz does have his name on The Wizard of Oz, albeit with eighteen other people. Mank puts forward a good argument though; Mankiewicz it seems had issues with Hearst, and his crony Louis B. Meyer, that Welles did not. Discovering what these are is one of Mank’s main treats.
What is also great about Mank, appropriately, is the script. Director David Fincher’s father Jack Fincher is the screenwriter. Fincher senior passed away in 2003 with no script credits to his name but leaving behind many essays and magazine articles. The dialogue is probably what is best about this film with everything that comes out of its protagonist’s mouth being an absolute zinger. It may not be totally realistic, although Mankiewicz was reportedly a wit, but it is delightful.
The performances are also strong across the board, not only from Gary Oldman as the title character but also from Charles Dance as Hearst, Arlis Howard as Meyer and a whole group of women that I shall come to shortly. Also of note is the fact that Mank uses filming techniques and music from the time at which it is set which starts off as an interesting quirk but quickly just becomes part of the tapestry of the film in a way The Artist never quite achieved.
Mank is not David Fincher’s best film, it lacks the kick of his best work in things like Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac but it is a significant improvement on the slightly schlocky likes of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Gone Girl. There is a lot of new stuff popping up simultaneously in cinemas and on Netflix right now, with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Prom still to come this month, but this is definitely one to see.
The Ripley Factor
Mank is a story about one particular man but Oldman is really well supported by three female actors as, based on the film, Mank himself was supported by three important women. First off is Tuppence Middleton as Sarah his long suffering but devoted and loving wife. Rather than coming over as weak and compliant or possibly even incidental as the character could so easily have done, Sarah is totally her husband’s match and clearly so key to him being the person he is. She also gets the best line about the tricky spelling of their surname. Then there is Rita Alexander played by Lily Collins. Alexander is literally there to serve Mankiewicz as the secretary whose job it is to type the script. Again though the writing and Collin’s performance make her so much more than she could have been in lesser hands. Finally Amanda Seyfried plays Mank’s friend and Hearst’s mistress, film star Marion Davies. The dynamic between Davies/Seyfried and Mankiewicz/Oldman is fascinating and Seyfried gives the character both charm and depth. Just like Herman J. Mankiewicz himself, I hope they all get the credit they so richly deserve.