Even if Citizen Kane’s lustre has dulled a little (it’s no longer top of the Sight and Sound critics poll, after decades of supremacy), it is still the optimal symbol of what Hollywood can achieve when it puts its mind to it. Hence the ongoing battles over who did what and when. This beautifully sculpted act of ancestor worship plants its flag firmly in the writer’s camp, and casts Orson Welles as little more than a credit-grabbing circus-master – when he actually shows up, which is seldom.
It’s an interpretation, of course, and one that is very much disputed; and it has been pointed out that Mank director David Fincher has bit of a personal axe to grind in that his late father Jack, who wrote this script, had his own story of writerly frustration with Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.
Be that as it may, Mank – the nickname of its principal character, boozehound Herman J Mankiewicz – is a full-on, heads-bowed, eyes-on-stalks tribute to the mercurial existence of the Hollywood contract writer. If this film is to be believed, it was a career that could afford its ablest practitioners unlimited quantities of alcohol, constant ego-stroking from admiring hangers-on and the opportunity to feel self-righteously superior to Hollywood’s money-grubbing studio suits.
Mank – played here with Churchillian gruffness by Gary Oldman – presides over a writers’ room of almost hilarious name-droppability: here’s Ben Hecht, over there is George Kaufman, and in that corner, why, if it isn’t SJ Perelman. Fincher orchestrates a whirlwind of acidic one-liners, whiskey glugging, sexist sneering and smoke-filled rooms. Reality is nudged a trifle to have Mank dictating his words from his sickbed (thereby getting round that perennial problem of how to film writers at work, when in the normal run of things they don’t actually seem to do anything).
Underneath the GQ-photoshoot sensibility, however, there’s an interesting subtheme of the writer’s relationship with the real people who serve as human models for fictional characters. Here the focus is on Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried), the longterm partner of California plutocrat WR Hearst (himself the generally acknowledged model for Kane).
Davies’s counterpart in Citizen Kane, Susan Alexander Kane, was an unflattering comparison – a failure and an alcoholic – and in the ensuing decades is generally held to have been responsible for destroying Davies’s reputation. Fincher makes it his business to rehabilitate Davies, portraying her as a sparkling, loyal figure of considerable talent who generously forgives Mankiewicz for trashing her in his script. (The counter-argument, offered not least by Welles himself, was that Susan has “no resemblance” to Davies, but that hasn’t fooled anyone, then or since.)
Lest Mank be pigeonholed as a self-indulgent style exercise in Hollywood vainglory, Fincher inserts one real-world-relevant thread: the ability of the super-rich to influence the US electoral process. Hearst, in league with studio boss Louis B Mayer, funds media disinformation to attack Upton Sinclair, the radical author who ran for California governor in 1934. In clear echoes of the Trumpian present, Mayer and Hearst create fake news items and successfully thwart Sinclair. (In Citizen Kane, Kane’s attempt to become a state governor fails after a sex scandal – something that never stopped Trump.)
Mank itself shows what modern Hollywood can achieve when it puts its mind to it: stunning visuals, top-calibre performances, and a sense of what a big-name director can get away with in the nooks and corners of the streaming revolution. In future decades, it will no doubt be seen as a fascinating artefact in its own right; a worthy adjunct to the brilliance of Kane itself.