Movies

David Fincher’s Mank Is the Citizen Kane of Movies About Citizen Kane

It’s a dazzling, byzantine, technologically impeccable movie about whether a writer will meet his deadline.

Black-and-white still of Gary Oldman with a cigarette in his mouth and numbers behind him.
Gary Oldman in Mank. Netflix

Half an hour into Mank, David Fincher’s elegant if protracted opus about the tortured composition process of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, the producer and actor John Houseman (Sam Troughton) reads the riot act to the dissipated scenarist Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) about his half-finished script for the motion picture then still titled simply American: “All in all it’s a bit of a jumble … a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans.” Of course, it was this temporal fragmentation and structural boldness that would make Citizen Kane the medium-changing experiment it turned out to be. But as Fincher must certainly be aware, this same critique could be applied to the movie he himself is making, without eight decades of film-historical hindsight to prove the speaker wrong. One of the many mysteries of Citizen Kane is the way it weaves so many characters, timelines, plot threads, and themes into a simple and seamless whole; however many times you’ve seen it, it’s always hard to remember exactly which bit comes next, yet each transition feels somehow preordained. Mank takes enormous pains to reproduce the look, sound, and feel of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic, but the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance of a Kane is something that can’t be pastiched into existence. Houseman’s words are meant to illustrate his failure to grasp the Kane script’s radical potential, but as an assessment of the gorgeous but cluttered movie he’s in, they’re not that far off the mark.

To be sure, a movie can fall well short of the standard of Citizen Kane and still be a pleasure to watch, and devoted cinephiles especially will revel in the details of Fincher’s portrait of Hollywood at the height of the studio system: precise recreations of the backlots of Paramount and MGM, of lavish weekend revels at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon mansion, and of writers’ rooms staffed with the likes of Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and S.J. Perelman (plus a stripper in pasties to act as their stenographer—one of a few moments in which this mostly male-centric movie lampoons Hollywood sexism while arguably reaping its benefits). These scenes, shot in luminescent black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, evoke not only the look of golden-age Hollywood films but their sound, with period-accurate monaural sound design (I couldn’t tell you exactly what that means, but I believe the obsessive Fincher knows and cares enough to get it right). Shot after shot evokes the look of Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking cinematography for Citizen Kane: the deep-focus compositions and images of gloomy high-ceilinged rooms crisscrossed by dusty bars of light.

At times all this deep-cut cinematic geekery can serve as a high-gloss distraction from the story, especially when screen legends swan through the frame merely for the purpose of scene setting: Characters named in the credits include Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable, though I would be hard pressed to tell which of the glamorous background figures is supposed to be who. But Mank finds its heart when both of its best-drawn characters are on screen: Oldman’s ruined, rueful Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried’s tartly funny Marion Davies, the movie star who was Hearst’s longtime mistress and for whom he built the hilltop castle that would inspire Kane’s fictional Xanadu. Davies was not, as both Mank and Fincher go out of their way to make clear, the model for Susan Alexander Kane, the talentless opera singer whose career is propped up by Welles’ megalomaniacal tycoon. Davies was a gifted comedienne whose career was, if anything, hampered by her lover-producer’s insistence that she play only the simpering heroines of historical melodramas. The platonic friendship that develops between her and Mank becomes one of the few relationships he has—including the one with his devoted but quietly furious wife (Tuppence Middleton)—that isn’t threatened by his penchant for alcoholic self-sabotage.

As the movie starts, Mank is being set up in a situation designed to guard against those self-destructive tendencies. A studio car deposits him in Victorville, California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, where he will be cared for by a German nurse (Monika Gossmann) while an English stenographer (Lily Collins) types up his chicken scratch. The idea is to keep him from drinking for 60 days while he finishes the Kane script, but the crafty Mank manages both to break into a locked case of pain medication (he’s recovering from an injury sustained in a car accident) and to get a case of whiskey delivered to his remote cottage. When he isn’t busy trying to obliterate his brain, though, Mank can still use it, as we see in a scene where he dictates an early draft of the film’s opening to his typist. He hasn’t yet arrived at the economy of the scene in its final form—the dropped paperweight, the whispered “Rosebud”—but the themes of loneliness, materialism, and the futility of worldly success are all already in place.

From there the story moves back in time to 1930, where we see a younger, less visibly damaged Mank holding court in the writers’ room at Paramount. A newly arrived recruit, Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), offers to introduce Mank to his famous aunt, Marion Davies, and soon the witty writer has become a fixture at Hearst Castle weekend gatherings. His progressive politics clash with the Republican orthodoxy of both Hearst (Charles Dance) and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and as the 1930s and the threat of Nazism in Europe progress, his relationship with both men becomes embattled. At one party, Mank and Davies are the only guests who express concern over the rise of fascism, while Mayer—himself a Jewish immigrant—dismisses their fears with a brusque “Hitler, Schmitler.” An extended stretch of this middle section deals with the 1934 California gubernatorial election, when the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair ran on a pro-labor platform against a conservative incumbent. Without giving away how this subplot unfurls, I can say that the role played by “fake news” makes it the part of the movie most relevant to the present day.

On the level of craft, Mank is impeccable, from the opulent costumes by Trish Summerville to the clever production design by Donald Graham Burt and, perhaps most of all, the retro symphonic score by longtime Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And many of the supporting players, most notably a never-better, Brooklyn-accented Seyfried and Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s savvy screenwriter brother Joe, rise to the level of complex characters, while others remain at the level of biopic contrivance. The portrait of Louis B. Mayer is spot-on, right down to the mogul’s manipulative sentimentality and fixation on female purity. But Mayer’s production chief Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), in fact something of a renegade figure within the studio system, is facilely stereotyped as a soulless corporate lackey—nearly every time we see him he is literally sitting at Mayer’s right hand.

Even as I marveled at Fincher’s reconstruction of various highly specific Hollywood milieux, I sometimes wondered how Mank’s ceaselessly referential story would play to someone who hadn’t recently read biographies of several of its key supporting characters. Nearly every scene contains a detail, sometimes tweaked, from some real-life behind-the-scenes anecdote or other. If you know the lore behind them, these moments provide texture and color to the struggle between Mank and the industry powers that be; if you don’t, I suspect, they might further crowd a plot already chockfull of timelines and proper names to keep track of.

The figure that looms over the film from afar is the 24-year-old Orson Welles, who appears only briefly, mostly in phone calls that show his face in shadowy profile, until a late scene when he finally has it out with Mank over who will get credit for the screenplay. Welles is played by the English actor Tom Burke with uncanny vocal accuracy, even if his physical presence never quite approximates the star’s commanding bulk. But the choice to make the director and star of Kane a peripheral character means that the movie’s central conflict takes place mainly off screen. Mank often feels like a loose bundle of subplots in search of a throughline. It’s engaging moment to moment, but with so many scenes establishing the fact that the protagonist is a self-sabotaging Hollywood outsider, the story has a tendency to flag, and the two-hour-and-12-minute running time hardly flies by.

The Mank script is credited to Fincher’s father, Jack, a journalist who died in 2003. The script has been updated and polished since by the director and his Benjamin Button collaborator Eric Roth. But in the film’s old-fashioned opening title sequence, the entire writing credit goes to Jack Fincher—a meaningful gesture in a movie that revolves around exactly what it means to be the sole author of a screenplay. For generations there has been debate as to how much of Kane’s script is attributable to Mankiewicz. Pauline Kael wrote a whole book (itself hotly debated) arguing that it was essentially his work alone rather than a collaboration with Welles, who gave himself equal credit. The act of solo authorship is an inherently tough thing to dramatize, and even with a performer as charismatic as Oldman at its center, Mank doesn’t always succeed in investing the question “Will this drunk make his deadline?” with the requisite suspense. We know he finished, and we know the resulting movie was a masterpiece for the ages. That this thoughtful and lovingly crafted homage is something less than that doesn’t keep it from being a lot of movie-nerd fun.