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Movies about making movies that focus on screenwriters set themselves a difficult challenge. Watching writers amass crumpled pages and empty whiskey bottles while struggling to conjure words on typewriters is hardly as rife with conflict and glamour as a working filmset with its ambitious directors, pampered stars and their clashing egos. Writing is the least dramatic part of the job.
As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Fincher chooses to explore the making of what is widely considered the greatest movie ever. He even invites comparisons through the film’s style and structure. Brave.
Herman J. Mankiewicz or ‘Mank’ (Gary Oldman) has been set the task of writing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles (Tom Burke). We are introduced to the alcoholic writer as he’s laid up in bed recovering from a broken leg, dictating the script to his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). Although she has trouble getting him to lay off the drink and get to work.
Adopting the non-linear structure of Citizen Kane, Mank bounces back and forth between the writing of the script and what influenced it. Primarily his friendship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). The origins of the timeless classic lie in Mank’s relationships with the media tycoon as well as his wife Millicent Hearst (Amanda Seyfried) and head of MGM Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard).
Like the fictional Kane, Hearst wields massive political influence through his media empire. With the help of Louis B. Mayer and MGM, they smear Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair to hurt his chances of becoming the Governor of California. He wants to help poor people during the Great Depression but it smells like dirty communism to them.
Parallels to the politics of today are there, particularly in the elites’ fear of socialists redistributing their wealth, but the coordinated and sophisticated attack against the left on display here is world’s away from the shitshow mainstream politics puts front and center today.
It aims for political relevance and comes close in the newsreels that Mank detests and MGM produce, having actors pretend to be real people slandering Sinclair. A studio production of old time fake news. But it’s nothing like the aimless alternative media and batshit conspiracies that swarm politics today. Ultimately, it’s a window into a past that’s trying too hard to reflect the present.
Conflict lies, not in the election for Governor, but in the creation of the script. Some people want Mank to stop drinking and write the thing, some want him not to write it at all and Orson Welles just wants to take credit.
How much credit Welles or Mankiewicz deserve for the script in real life is contested but Fincher clearly sides with Mank. Burke channels Welles perfectly, portraying him as a wunderkind wise beyond his years who is very concerned with everyone knowing he’s a wunderkind wise beyond his years and certainly didn’t have any help writing his masterpiece. The climatic argument is a gripping spectacle for any film buff but is thematically unrelated to everything the film was previously concerned with.
Nevertheless screwball energy, aping films of the era, propels things along as the cast, Oldman and Seyfried particularly, are a lot of fun trading witty lines. What’s less effective is the digital sheen overlaying the classic monochrome aesthetic. To go to this much trouble re-envisioning the Golden Age of Cinema without shooting in film is a shame.
While the dialogue brings the story behind the story to life and is a lot of fun, the image can’t help but feel cold and calculated. The work of a master no doubt but all craft and no soul.