Presented in intentionally splotchy black and white with a jazzy, old-fashioned film score beating beneath it, Mank revives an age-old debate and takes a look back at the often romanticized Hollywood of the 1930s, but ditches the rose-colored glasses in telling a Citizen Kane origin story through the critical eyes of its title character, Herman J. Mankiewicz.
This is no doubt a very personal film for David Fincher, as it was written by his late father Jack and he's been trying to get it made for 30 years. While the director displays his typical first-rate filmmaking in finally executing this decades-developed passion project, he may have dialed in a little too far into a specific point-of-view in the process, risking the alienation of audiences unfamiliar with the main players, and ultimately telling what's historically proven to be a messy story, with a somewhat manufactured, clean edge.
"Who really wrote Citizen Kane?" is the contentious question that has been the subject of exhaustive study and debate, seemingly since the opening credits first rolled in 1941 with the names of both Herman J. Mankiewicz and director Orson Welles up on the screen in a shared capacity. The controversy had no shortage of fuel, as there were rumors of a heated battle between the two behind the scenes, followed by the film's only Oscar win coming in the best screenplay category, and the ensuing shots taken by both in the press, with Mankiewicz going so far as to suggest that he was the sole writer of the script. Well, whether you believe him or not, that's the version of events that Mank goes with, taking its protagonist's side in illustrating his account of the story as reality.
So having already decided where it stands in the classic argument, the movie instead tackles another big question surrounding Citizen Kane and its famously transparent depiction of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his wife Marion Davies. That's where Fincher's movie finds its own "rosebud", the mystery at the heart of it all: Why would "Mank" want to project such a scathing portrayal of two people he once considered friends up on movie screens across the country for all to see?
The film attempts to answer that driving question with the use of a meandering structure that purposely mirrors the form of Citizen Kane itself, and the unconventional story construction ultimately works as both an effective tool in revealing Herman's motivations and as a fun parallel to the iconic work it's all about, but this is just one of the many ways Fincher begins to leave some viewers behind, charging forward without providing much necessary context and hoping the audience is well-versed in the terrain he's treading.
In the film's present day, Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is an alcoholic writer considered by the industry to be washed up, spending his days in bed trying to complete the script for Kane in time to meet the demanding deadline set by Orson Welles (Tom Burke). But interwoven are a series of flashbacks to a younger Mank's studio days as a cog in the machinery of MGM, filling in moments of interaction with Hearst (Charles Dance), his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard).
Set against the backdrop of an impending election between challenger Upton Sinclair and the studio-backed incumbent Frank Merriam, a clash of ideals increasingly boils over as Mank struggles to stand by his own beliefs within a powerful media empire that's hell-bent on attacking them. These flashbacks build upon each other to paint a wicked picture of the infinite wealth and influence held by Old Hollywood's major players, and they gradually lay a bitter foundation from which one of the system's very own might bare that ugliness across the silver screen that helped create it.
The result is a sharp examination of the "old" industry and of the titans who populated it, but with no shortage of relevance to contemporary Hollywood. Some of the politically charged discussion had by the characters at Hearst's social gatherings could likely be overheard almost verbatim in a coffeeshop down the street or on a cable network today. Mank shows us the birth of the "phony news reels" that played a prominent role in Merriam's re-election, injecting timely thematic life into the work about the responsibility media moguls carry in wielding their power. It is worth noting however that for a film so concentrated on the importance of truth in telling stories on screen, it may be a bit too inventive for its own good. The movie chooses to believe fully in one side of a debate unsettled by history, but also drums up dramatic juice that certainly goes beyond the facts and their placement in time, all to create the perfect conditions for the narrative it needs.
But embellishments of the sort can often be forgiven when in service of the larger goal that is good filmmaking, and it can't be denied that there is some great filmmaking happening here. Mank is expertly shot, gorgeously presented, smoothly complemented by Ross and Reznor's fitting score, and delivered with very fine performances all around. This level of care and craftsmanship in every element on the screen is what we've come to expect from Fincher, whose adoration and respect for "the magic of the movies" is apparent in the story he tells, and in the way he tells it. His devotion to cinema itself is the reason we're treated to such satisfying execution in yet another successful effort, but it also may be what leads him to ask a little too much of his viewers. He's hoping that film fans share more than just his love for movies, but also his deep knowledge of the medium's history. Citizen Kane is almost certainly a pre-requisite for a viewing of Mank, but the stories behind the movie and its real-life equivalents, as well as the subsequent arguments it sparked also border on required reading to truly come along for this ultra-specific ride.
Such a hefty homework assignment 80+ years after the events have transpired is certainly a lot to expect from your viewers at home. However, for those who do find themselves inside the movie's very narrow target demographic, Mank will likely hit the mark.
Mank is streaming now on Netflix.