One of the most iconic moments in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane comes near the end, as the aging and once-powerful newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, now at the lowest point in his life, shuffles down a corridor between mirrors on opposite walls. Dejected and deflated, his ghostly pallor is reflected infinite times, appearing to get smaller and smaller as he shrinks into the void. This is a fitting image, because Kane is itself a hall of mirrors, one that unintentionally reflected the future downfall of its most boisterous creators.
David Fincher's Mank adds another metatextual layer to the puzzle. It's basically a Citizen Kane origin story, detailing the real-life social and political turmoil that inspired the film's ripped-from-the-headlines themes. It also apes the arch tone and heightened style of 1940s cinema, down to the black-and-white cinematography, monaural sound mix and fake reel-changing cigarette burns in the corner of the screen. And like Kane, it merges myth and history in its romantic, seriocomic portrait of a man who lived larger than was physically and mentally possible — in this case, Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, better known as "Mank."
And yet the film is curiously flat and uninvolving, buzzing through signposts in Hollywood history — the studio system tightening its belt during the Great Depression, the 1934 California gubernatorial elections, the birth of the Red Scare, the writing of an influential movie — without ever generating sparks, dramatic or otherwise. Even Gary Oldman's central performance, as loquacious and flashy as we expect from him, feels a bit perfunctory. As a storyteller, Fincher isn't exactly known for his altruism (in fact, his best movies are his coldest), and maybe that's why Mank's attempts at humanizing historical figures ring sort of hollow.
Mank was, by all accounts, a man of bottomless appetites, and his heavy drinking brought about his death at 55. (Oldman, by comparison, is 61, playing Mank in his late 30s and early 40s.) A reporter turned prolific screenwriter, he headed Paramount's script department at the height of his career and contributed to dozens of films, including The Wizard of Oz, The Pride of the Yankees and several Marx Brothers pictures.
Orson Welles, meanwhile, was a 24-year-old neophyte when he met Mank, a cause celebre who had built buzz around his edgy Mercury Theatre productions and his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. The two men concocted an idea, inspired by Mank's fractious relationship with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, that would eventually coalesce into Citizen Kane, and it was a collaboration that would not only cement their legacies but definitively end their working relationship.
Fincher's film begins in 1940, as Mank, recovering from a car accident that left his leg in a cast, retreats to a lake cabin in Victorville, California, to start work on his script (then titled American). Mank spends his days furiously dictating dialogue to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins), sending off reams of pages via Welles' right-hand man, John Houseman (Sam Troughton), and drinking bottles of Seconal smuggled to him in straw-filled shipping containers.
The movie adopts a flashback-heavy structure similar to Kane, retreating into the past as a means of explaining our present-day hero and introducing us to figures who would directly influence his greatest achievement as a writer. Sometime in the mid-'30s, we see Mank get chummy with Hearst (Charles Dance, an inspired casting choice), whose fluctuating fortunes and failed political aspirations were transmuted into the doomed protagonist of Kane. Mank also gets wrapped up in MGM's production of fake newsreels smearing then-Democratic governor candidate Upton Sinclair (MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer was California's Republican Party chair), a scheme that is echoed in Kane's attempts to fabricate his own political legacy. (In a bizarrely timely touch, Kane loses the governor's race and orders his papers to run ginned-up stories about "fraud at the polls.")
And then there's the business of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst's much younger mistress, whose transition from vaudeville to the big screen was seen as a blatant act of nepotism. Amanda Seyfried plays Davies as a headstrong, hyper-aware person, who develops a kinship with Mank because they both seem to recognize the bullshit that goes into making it in Hollywood. So why, then, would Mank create such an unflattering facsimile of Davies in the form of Susan Alexander, Kane's pathetic second wife? The movie doesn't really seem to know, and Fincher stages the final confrontation between Mank and Marion indifferently, so that their conversation takes on an almost robotic approximation of remorse and forgiveness. (The less said about how flippantly Mank treats Welles, the better.)
There's so much fascinating lore surrounding the making of Kane, and I kept waiting for Mank to reach the feverish intensity and breathless pacing of the film it's about. Maybe it's unfair to stack up any movie against an all-time great, but Mank tees itself up for those comparisons, particularly in its "look at me" visual allusions to Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland's groundbreaking deep-focus photography: An empty bottle tumbles out of Mank's hand like Kane's fabled snowglobe, for instance, and Marion and Mank wander through Hearst's animal sanctuary in an obvious nod to Kane's opening crawl through the haunted Xanadu estate.
Mank seems just as much a tribute to Kane as it does to Fincher's own late father, Jack, who wrote the screenplay 20-some years ago in hopes that he could eventually make it with his son. You'd think, then, that the movie would have more passion and bluster in it, more humanity and less slick but empty craftsmanship.
What's remarkable about Citizen Kane is that it's both technically awesome and overflowing with feeling. I've seen it countless times, but whenever I return to it, I'm stunned all over again by how fresh and contemporary it seems, and how heedlessly it unfolds. Hearst famously hated Kane, and yet looking back on it, it's a remarkably empathetic portrait of a man who kept building an empire in the hopes that someone would come along and love him, all while that very empire drove away everyone he ever trusted. I don't know how Mank would feel about the movie that now bears his name, but I think he would have wanted to see the script and make some rewrites. ♦
Mank is streaming now on Netflix. Citizen Kane is available to rent through Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance