The first time I saw Citizen Kane I was a senior in high school. We watched it in my filmmaking class, and while I was but 17 I enjoyed it quite a bit. I appreciated film enough to really dig it. I also saw Starsky and Hutch in theaters three times that year, but I digress. Since I majored in film in college, needless to say I saw the movie a few more times. I do believe that Orson Welles’ film is a great work. Personally, I also really enjoy movies about the making of film or television. As such, I was excited for Mank to hit Netflix, especially since this was the bleakest year for new movies in my life.
Mank is the latest film from David Fincher, a director I admittedly am not a fan of. That’s mostly because he tends to make grim and graphic films that are not to my taste, not because of a lack of skill. The script was written by his father Jack, who died several years ago. It’s a passion project for Fincher, but it’s about the making of a movie that was, in actuality, not necessarily a work of passion itself. Although, Mank does not claim to tell the entire truth. It’s a work of fiction, much like Citizen Kane, even if both were inspired by real people.
Ultimately, though, there was a bit of a swerve to Mank. Does it involve Herman J. Mankiewicz, aka Mank, writing the initial script for Citizen Kane? Yes, but it’s not really about that. The movie is as much a biopic of the screenwriter who had blossomed in the early days of filmmaking but had fallen into alcoholism by the time the Kane assignment came up. In fact, the parts of the film set in the present (for the movie, not for us here in 2020), see Mank recuperating from a serious car accident while also sort of trying (and failing) to sober up.
The rest of the movie is told in flashbacks, giving us glimpses of Mank’s life, particularly as it intersects with William Randolph Hearst, the man who purportedly inspired Charles Foster Kane. This is stuff I was not at all familiar with, though what is true and what is fiction I do not know. I also do not care. This can be a problem with a film based on a true story. I want to just let the story wash over me and enjoy the characters and dialog, but part of me can’t help but wonder what’s true and what isn’t. That, if anything, is a detriment to movies like this. That’s honestly hindered my enjoyment of, like, Goodfellas in the intervening years.
Welles is barely a character in Mank. Honestly, Hearst doesn’t loom quite as large as you might think either. Mostly, we spend time with Mank, as portrayed by Gary Oldman. Oldman is playing a man in his early forties when the movie begins, which is either strange casting or a sign of how much drinking had worn Mank down.
Overall, I really enjoyed the film. It looks great and there’s a dreamlike quality to a lot of it. There are strong performances, especially from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress. I’d happily giving her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Mank is by no means a masterpiece like Citizen Kane, though. It is not as inventive, and even from a storytelling perspective it doesn’t work as well. A few moments ring hollow and fall clumsily, usually involving Lily Collins’ character. Mank seems like an interesting character, and the movie makes some use of that, but maybe didn’t do as much as they could. If you want a movie about the making of a legendary film, Mank may leave you wanting more. If you want to see a psychological picture of an alcoholic screenwriter on his last legs pondering over the moments that got him to where he is, writing a film that will win him an Oscar, then by all means please give Mank a shot. In a rough year for movies, it stands out near the top of the pack.