Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is recruited by the 26 year old Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write whatever script he feels like writing. He decides to write about a young idealistic newspaper editor who enters politics and gradually loses his ethics until he becomes the very establishment he used to rile against. Whilst dictating the screenplay to his patient but concerned assistant Rita Alexander (Lilly Collins), Mank reflects on his experiences with eccentric millionaire William Randolph Hearst who inspired the story.
Mank is as much a film about the writing of Citizen Kane as it is a film about the politics of Old Hollywood and the possible influence film may have over it’s viewers. Throughout the narrative the depression and the 1934 California Gubernatorial election press upon our characters. Mank sardonically observes proceedings with reservation and dry wit, but people around him are swept up in the events and find their morals compromised. The obligation of the artist to take risks and be responsible for the power their work wields over the public imagination is emphasised.
This is very much a writer’s film focussed primarily with dialogue and character work. With very few quiet moments, the movie shines when it combines its best performers. Gary Oldman is charismatic and gently charming as Mankiewicz. It’s a refreshing change of pace from his over the top turn as Churchill in The Darkest Hour. Amanda Seyfried is fantastic as Marion Davis, Hearst’s young wife. She is sweet-natured and friendly but possessed of a quiet intelligence and subdued sadness that adds depth to her presence. Her interactions with Mank are the most naturally engaging and warm moments of the film.
Fincher imitates, the style and structure of Citizen Kane. In the former regard he is very successful. The film is gorgeously filmed in black and white with only occasional tells that this was not filmed in the golden age of Hollywood. The sound has been made to echo as if it were being shot on immense Hollywood sound stages and projected into the cavernous screening rooms of an old fashioned playhouse. It’s a beautiful looking film that eschews Fincher’s typical visual panache in favour of a traditional style that suits the drama well.
The film is however less successful in its attempts to copy Kane’s unique storytelling structure. Both films move between different points in its protagonists life but whereas Citizen Kane never felt aimless, with each digression moving the story and our understanding of Charles Foster Kane forwards, Mank feels unfocused. Once the screenplay is finished and the ticking clock of the screenplay deadline defused, the film goes on focusing on the political struggle. Its smaller in scope and just generally messier than Citizen Kane.
It’s exciting to see Fincher return to feature films, even if it is only on the small screen. The film however is not exciting or particularly bold. It’s an interesting if significantly inferior companion piece to Welle’s masterpiece. The insight into Mank’s process, the history behind Citizen Kane’s production and the history of the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s may be somewhat shallow but it’s compelling and engaging and will hopefully encourage more to find out about the intriguing history of the best film ever made.