David Fincher’s Mank is about the man most famous today for having written (or co-written, depending on what you choose to believe) Citizen Kane — and the most fascinating aspect of the film is how little it concerns itself with Citizen Kane. This is not about a convalescent man (an alcoholic, a gambler) wrestling with his inner demons while writing a screenplay. (“Why do you put up with me?” he keeps asking his wife.) This is not about a Hollywood screenwriter battling it out with a “boy wonder” director. (Tom Burke plays Orson Welles, and the voice, the intonations are perfect.) The scene settings are typed out like in an actual script (“EXT: Victorville”), and we do get a few “this real-life incident might have led to that scene in the movie” parallels — the production of a “fake” newsreel, a moonlit stroll through the grounds of an estate with an actual zoo — but Mank isn’t about the creative process, either.
The film, I think, is about a crisis of conscience — rather, two crises of conscience. First, “Mank”, namely Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), is gradually disillusioned by the Hollywood dream factory. While outsiders see (and revel in) only the dreams, he’s an insider and he sees the “factory”, the cold and ruthless machinations that keep it going. There’s a gubernatorial campaign that one of the big studios helps to sabotage. There are studio employees emotionally blackmailed into accepting salary rollbacks because of the Depression. These portions have an “I sold my soul to the Devil” feel, and they suggest that writing Citizen Kane might have been some sort of exorcism: because that film’s protagonist is based on the Devil incarnate, the “vaunted muckraker”, publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Charles Dance, looking like Kirk Douglas, plays Hearst not as an outright villain but as a mysterious, “no one can tell what’s going on inside his head” man with unexpected streaks of sympathy.
You can see why. Hearst was the Kane figure — the central mystery in a movie full of mysteries. Mank’s intricately plotted screenplay (by Jack Fincher, the director’s father) is brilliant for the most part. The mirroring of Kane is constant but never in your face, and it starts with the structure. It took me a while to get into Mank, but then, as I recalled, it took me a while to get into Kane the first time — but once you’re hooked, you’re truly hooked. As in Kane, the story moves back and forth in time. Even some of the shots in Erik Messerschmidt’s marvellous cinematography — a “ceiling shot” here, a cunningly devised deep-focus image there — allude to Kane, but in a more limited manner, as though we’re seeing Kane through the eyes of the screenwriter who doesn’t have the full cinematic faculties to see the film the way the director would.
The second crisis of conscience is built on the question of artistic betrayal. Artists are vampires, of course — the very art of creation feeds on the people around the artist. But what if there’s collateral damage? What if, in trying to pin down Hearst, you are also bringing down his mistress, Marion Davies (a magnificent Amanda Seyfried, imbuing fierce intelligence into the chalk-outline of a “dumb blonde”), who’s become your friend? Marion bears little resemblance to Kane’s no-talent girlfriend, and this may be why Mank keeps insisting they’re not the same person — but who’s listening? And what about Welles? Did he commit an act of artistic betrayal, too, by hogging all the credit for Kane, despite the fact that the only Oscar the film won was for its screenplay?
The one frustrating thing about Mank (at least for me, as someone who thinks Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films ever) is how little it takes us into the Welles-Mank collaboration. I didn’t want the film to take sides exactly, the way the American critic Pauline Kael did in her giant (and frankly, weird) essay, “Raising Kane”. (Like the title of that essay, there are bits from the Bible here, when Mank talks about Moses and the burning bush.) But the screenplay for Kane appears to have been knocked out with no inputs from Welles. He does say he’s sending notes after reading the first draft, but there’s no follow-up — we never see what happened. And that is strange. Mank name-drops studio-era legends like David O Selznick, Louis B Mayer, Ben Hecht — there’s even an Emil Jannings poster. But Welles is at best a voice from the wings. We sense he is around, but we never sense what he did. It’s as though Mank wrote a terrific screenplay and — poof! — Kane made itself.
Some people might argue that Kane is such a visual marvel that the real question of authorship is who “wrote it” on screen: Welles or the cinematographer Gregg Toland. (It’s perhaps the first and only time a director and his cinematographer shared the same title card.) Deep-focus camerawork and Expressionistic staging were not exactly new: a few years earlier, for instance, John Ford’s Stagecoach even had The Shot That Shows The Ceiling™ (something that’s always brought up with hushed reverence whenever Kane is discussed), and cinematographer Bert Glennon’s exaggerated (visual) perspectives are certainly something Kane drew from. But Welles and Toland pushed these techniques so far that, even today, the film has a “velvet-roped work of art inside the Louvre” quality to it. Mank says (about Welles): “I built him a watertight narrative, a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job.” But the finale suggests that Welles thought he had a hand in this “narrative”, too. So who is right?
But then, Mank isn’t really about the authorship of Kane or even a “biography” of Mank. That’s perhaps why he says, early on: “You can’t capture a man’s life in two hours. All you can hope to leave is an impression of one.” And Gary Oldman leaves us with one hell of an impression. Sometimes, his lines have the dry, clipped wit from, say, All About Eve, written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, Mank’s brother. Other times, he gets grand theatrical scenes, grand theatrical lines (Mank, pre-Hollywood was a New York playwright), and he walks and talks through them like a lauded theatre actor mildly amused (and more than mildly contemptuous) about the vulgar world of cinema. My favourite passage from the film is when Mank beats himself up because “the words don’t sing.” His secretary (Lily Collins) reminds him that he’s not writing an opera. Mank says, “But I am writing an opera.” One part of the line is a reference to the opera inside Kane, starring Kane’s mistress. But another part of it is simply the tone of the film Mank’s screenplay would turn into. That’s, in a way, what David Fincher has done with the deeply evocative Mank. He knows we know the opera. He’s given us the libretto.