“The most detestable habit in all modern cinema is the homage.” These are the words of a 67-year-old Orson Welles, speaking to an audience at the Cinémathèque française in Paris just three short years before his death. At this point in his life, with dozens of feature-film credits to his name (both in front of and behind the camera), innumerable theatrical productions under his belt, and enough broadcast radio programs to make one’s head reel, it seems fair to say that Welles wasn’t mincing words. The actor, director, writer, and producer — whose Hollywood debut, Citizen Kane (1941), is considered one of the greatest movies ever made — never spoke without his signature bluntness, especially when it came to the art of filmmaking.
That’s why, nearly 40 years since Welles decried the technique as a repugnant practice, it feels so surprising to see a feature-length homage to Citizen Kane itself. Or, rather, a feature-length homage to the man responsible for the film’s original screenplay, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, director David Fincher’s first film in six years and an adaptation of father Jack Fincher’s long-gestating (and meticulously researched) scenario, follows the titular screenwriter (Gary Oldman) as he attempts to crank out a script while nursing a broken leg and a lot of liquor bottles.
Given total creative freedom by the studio, RKO Radio Pictures, Welles trusts Mank (and the writer’s reputation as an unsung hero of American studio cinema) to provide him with something spectacular by the time the director is finished with his latest stage production — in about 60 days. Holed up in a remote villa in Victorville, Calif., about 90 miles outside of Hollywoodland, Mank, in the company of nurse Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossman) and secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), draws from his years of experience as an in-house writer at Paramount and MGM and a journalist for the Chicago Tribune to craft a boundless narrative for the ages. He writes in fits and starts, procrastinating by getting drunk and reminiscing on the decade prior under the guise of creative soul-searching.
This writing style is apparent in Citizen Kane, yes, but it’s also there in Jack Fincher’s script for Mank: Fincher (both father and son) take viewers back to the 1930s to contextualize what Mank puts on the page in the ’40s. The reasoning behind the nonlinear structure employed by both Mank and Fincher is laid out plainly pretty early on: “You can’t capture a man’s life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave an impression.” What better way to leave that impression than by leaping back and forth to the good stuff? Big Hollywood parties, meetings with top studio executives, run-ins with the hottest names in the biz, and so on: These are the things Mank can’t help but home in on during his time as Welles’ recruit. The events share one common factor: the presence of one William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), a newspaper tycoon, media mogul, and politician who rubbed Mank all the wrong ways over the years.
Regardless of how Welles felt about this particular method of filmmaking, David Fincher has no problem adopting a superficial Citizen Kane pastiche for his long-awaited return to the director’s chair. In tuth, he goes so all-out in certain areas — complete with cue marks, film grain, mono sound, and an impressively committed Old Hollywood soundtrack from frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — that it’s strange he decided to cut corners in two key places: the camera and the aspect ratio. Shot in 8K and presented in ultra-widescreen, Mank — in spite of its best efforts to appear “old” through various digital alterations in postproduction — can’t keep from looking, well, digital. Fincher’s decision to embrace modern technology here instead of fully committing to the Citizen Kane aesthetic (which would require shooting on film in the squarish Academy ratio) is only the first of many indications that he’s more concerned with honoring his title character than the film the man wrote. This is a shame, because Mank ends up being the least interesting lens through which one could view this story.
Relegated to the sidelines are the characters Rita Alexander and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), two women who knew Mank quite well and provide far more intriguing angles into the behind-the-scenes of Citizen Kane. The former, Mank’s aforementioned secretary, doubles as his stenographer while he recovers in Victorville. Her inquiries into the writer’s life are, more often than not, what provides the narrative with the chance to flash back. Focusing on her perspective wouldn’t be enough to solve many of the feature’s larger problems, but at least it would feel less like a biopic and more like historical fiction. Ditto Davies, who — thanks to a brilliant performance from Seyfried — finds herself in a compromising position as the mediator between Mank and her longtime lover, Hearst. Mank’s platonic relationships with these women are much more affecting and flat-out compelling than the ones between Mank and his wife (Tuppence Middleton), Mank and his superiors, and even Mank and Welles.
Technical and structural qualms aside, Mank is catnip for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a classic Hollywood film of the era. Fincher and his expert crew’s unparalleled commitment to the sights, sounds, and feel of the time period are as gripping as a glue trap for Old Hollywood fans. A set of walk-and-talks — one featuring Mank and Davies and another featuring Mank, brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) — are among the best scenes in the film for their ability to portray the snappy, electric feel associated with the Golden Age. The film might look far too digital at times, but it’s hard to resist the sheer charm sporadically imbued here. That’s what’s so bizarre: It’s only occasionally captivating. Just like its timeline-hopping narrative, Mank switches off between creative and campy, inspired and insipid, adulatory and ahistorical (not to mention sincere and sanctimonious).
When the characters aren’t talking shop about the industry, they’re talking politics. There are lines about making movies that will bring people back to theaters again, concerns about the lingering economic woes in post-Depression America, scenes of studio suits pleading with the talent to take pay cuts. These are undoubtedly hot-button issues both then and now, but it’s laughable to hear such arguments from Netflix, a streamer that doesn’t pay income taxes while it continues to raise its annual price per month, frequently caves to foreign governments that ask the service to censor content in their country, and is a lead suspect in shaping the current entertainment landscape.
Just as risible are Fincher’s repeated sharp-tongued condemnations of fake news and his jabs at Welles’ uncompromising approach to filmmaking, considering both the countless inaccuracies in his and his father’s collaborative effort and Fincher’s own reputation as a relentlessly domineering director. David’s questionable comments on Welles in the leadup to Mank’s release align perfectly with Jack’s portrayal of the filmmaker as a controlling and ruthless egomaniac, which is truly the ultimate irony: Seyfried and Oldman, like practically every lead in a Fincher film before them, spoke openly about doing more than 100 takes on several different occasions throughout Mank’s exhausting-sounding shoot. If Welles’ obstinacy made him a contender for the most acclaimed craftsman in all of film history, then what’s Fincher’s excuse for railing against him?
When Mank works, it works incredibly well: crackling conversations from stars at the top of their game stitched together with vivacity in the editing bay, commendable set design, and costumes that give even bored viewers something enticing to look at, an exemplary score that picks up the slack of a scene on more than one occasion, and a couple of sequences that rank among Fincher’s most novel. When it doesn’t, it falls to lows previously untouched by a director routinely praised as one of the best of his generation: lifeless and conventional exposition dumps, near-constant visual cues that beat the lead’s substance-abuse problem into the viewer’s head, tonal dissonance that’s too unfunny to be seen as satire and too stylized to be viewed as a straight drama, and a conclusion that is so laughably on the nose it verges on genre parody. Mileage will vary depending on where audiences fall — pro-Welles, pro-Mank, pro-Fincher, or somewhere in the middle — but one thing remains collectively true: Welles’ assiduity and persistence resulted in Citizen Kane. Fincher’s resulted in a flimsy, ornate passion project that fails to live up to his own high standards.
Mank is now available to stream from Netflix.