The year is 1940 and a young, promising new talent by the name of Orson Welles has been given complete creative freedom by RKO Pictures to craft his debut feature. To form a screenplay, Orson enlists the help of one Herman J. Mankiewicz, a prolific screenwriter who made a name for himself throughout the 1930s during the rise of talkies. Herman is currently in a bad way, having just survived an auto accident with a broken leg. Nonetheless, he is determined to work with Orson to make the up-and-coming director’s passion project the best it can possibly be. As he does, he reminisces about what brough him to this point.
Citizen Kane is considered one of the best films ever made – to the point where even people who haven’t seen it accept this critical assessment as a fact of life. Its very name is shorthand for a work of exceptional quality – even if those drawing the comparison are not fully aware of the historical context. What’s especially notable about its reception is the sheer longevity it has enjoyed. The story continues to resonate to this day as a result of its timeless motifs. The media always deserves heavy scrutiny whenever those in charge fail to be objective.
The case has been made that because so many filmmakers have taken cues from Citizen Kane, it is difficult to appreciate its innovations from a modern lens. However, this inference ignores the fact that while Mr. Welles may have written a significant portion of the filmmaking lexicon, his actual style was often imitated, yet never surpassed. Even today, you know you’re watching an Orson Welles film when you see it. Even at age twenty-four, the man was a master of effectively incorporating shadows into his visual narrative – a technique few of his successors even came close to mastering.
This last point bears mentioning because one of the best things about Mank is that David Fincher absolutely nails Mr. Welles’s unique style. Notwithstanding the occasional profanity, I found I actively had to remind myself Mank was released in 2020 because it comes across as a lost film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It doesn’t stop at its monochrome presentation, however. Mr. Fincher casts much of his films in darkness, which both emulates Mr. Welles’s signature style and perfectly captures the era. With the 1930s defined by extreme hardships and changing social tides brought on by the Great Depression nobody could have lived through that decade entirely unaffected. This wasn’t even getting into the very real possibility – and in 1939, inevitability – of a madman abroad igniting the flames of war.
Naturally, the greatest strength of Mank would be leading man Gary Oldman himself. Herman J. Mankiewicz – or Mank as he prefers to be called – is given an interesting portrayal in this film. Although he isn’t exactly seen doing much in the way of writing, it’s evident that Mank is a man with great passion for his craft. He is man who intensely feels all of life’s highs and lows, often cracking jokes and using his natural charisma as a cover for his rampant alcoholism. He also seems to channel the disillusionment of his younger brother, Joseph, who once famously likened Hollywood to a band of thieves. All of this makes his determination to help Orson see his project through all the more admirable.
So, while Mank does succeed in many ways, it falls short on a foundational level. Much of the film is predicated on the premise that Mank was primarily responsible for having written the script. Screenwriter Jack Fincher isn’t the first person to come down to such a conclusion; in her essay “Raising Kane”, notable film critic Pauline Kael claimed Mr. Mankiewicz deserved most of the credit for the script, claiming that Mr. Welles “did not write… one line of the shooting script”. Her conclusion was later completely disproved with rather concrete evidence.
The reason this is a problem is because Mr. Fincher’s film suggests that Mr. Welles took credit for Mr. Mankiewicz’s work. In reality, Mr. Welles had made several revisions and additions to the script by the time he began shooting. While Mr. Mankiewicz absolutely deserved credit for writing the script, to insinuate that he was the sole – or arguably even the main – driving force behind its creation is disingenuous. By doing so, Mr. Fincher inadvertently downplays the work that Mr. Welles had put into the film. Then again, assuming for a moment Ms. Kael’s essay was correct and he didn’t write a single line of the shooting script, the fact remains that he directed, produced, and starred in his own film, so it’s not as though he just sat back and took all the credit for his subordinates’ work. Even in light of everything else, to accomplish all of that at age twenty-four is nothing short of miraculous. Then again, just the fact that Orson Welles is portrayed by Tom Burke, who was thirty-nine at the time of the film’s shooting, seemed to tacitly demonstrate how Mr. Fincher and his team found the reality utterly irreconcilable.
I also find the ending suffers far too much from hindsight bias. Everyone involved with the creation of Mank knew that Citizen Kane is considered one of the best films ever made – its very name being an idiom for greatness. To Mr. Fincher’s credit, nobody in Mank exactly goes as far as predicting just how monolithic the reputation of Citizen Kane will become. Mank himself considers the script his masterwork, but that’s more of a testament to his confidence than anything else. Given his characterization leading up to this moment, he does strike me more as an artist who is proud of everything he creates; he isn’t the one to second-guess himself every step of the way.
The real issue is that Mr. Fincher falls makes a very common mistake when parsing how Citizen Kane was received. The film’s reception as it’s portrayed in Mank strongly implies that it was an instant hit with critics and common theatergoers alike. Given the film’s legacy, it’s easy to forget that, despite its positive critical reception, Citizen Kane performed very poorly in the box office. William Randolph Hearst, not exactly adept in the art of taking criticism, had done all he could to suppress the film, exerting his influence so theaters wouldn’t show it, and preventing media outlets he controlled from ever discussing it. Such was the extent of his influence that the audience booed Citizen Kane each time it had been mentioned during the 14th Academy Awards ceremony. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that people finally began giving Citizen Kane its dues.
Admittedly, it is difficult to write after the bell has already been rung. You know where the pieces are to fall into place, and slowing down the process or otherwise adding to it is easier said than done. That being said, considering most fiction is written with a vague idea of where the plot will end up, it’s not unreasonable to expect authors to apply those kinds of standards when discussing historical events as well.
Mank reminds me a lot of Rupert Goold’s Judy inasmuch that both films have interesting stories to tell, but were ultimately held back by the formula screenwriters used to craft biographical features at the time. The format worked at its best whenever it was about a subject overcoming unlikely odds and making an indelible mark in the history books. It absolutely did not work in the case of Judy – a story mired in pure tragedy. Admittedly, it is a bit more serviceable for the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, but it is held back by the other significant trapping of contemporary biographical features: the tendency to excise inconvenient facts in order to maintain the fictional narrative’s integrity. I will say Mank is far from the biggest offender in this regard, but that it seems to take cues from a long-discredited essay is rather questionable.
It’s a bit of a shame because while Citizen Kane is rightly considered one the best films ever made, the story of its creation and subsequent reception is every bit as fascinating. It was a watershed moment in cinematic history, and one every generation should hold reverence for. On top of that, Mr. Fincher captures Orson Welles’s style so perfectly, I had to actively remind myself I was watching a film from 2020. Mank could have been great, but as a direct result of its contemporary filmmaking sensibilities, it has to settle for being merely decent. Even so, if you can get past the fact that liberties are taken with certain historical events, Mank may be worth your while.
Final Score: 6/10