CITIZEN KANE (1941) has garnered a reputation as being one of the best films in history, constantly earning the number one spot on many lists for years. It was directed by a young Orson Welles who was only 24 at the time and had never worked in Hollywood. Despite his young age and inexperience, RKO Pictures gave him complete creative control over his first film. He set out to make his masterpiece and settled on a writing partner: Herman J. Mankiewicz, commonly referred to as Mank.
The recent film MANK (2020) directed by David Fincher, explores Mank’s story as he writes the first draft of CITIZEN KANE. The man is bound to his bed after a car accident and must rely on a typist named Rita to complete his screenplay. I must admit, I went into my viewing of this film thinking that it would be a typical drama about the pressures of writing the script, and how Mank overcame adversity to help create one of the greatest films of all time. Once I started watching, I was very pleasantly surprised.
The film seems to be less about CITIZEN KANE, and more about Mank himself. It is a character study that delves into who Mank was as a person and what has gotten him to this point. The film is less concerned with how he wrote the film and focuses more on why. He’s shown to be a sarcastic alcoholic with a gambling problem who does, in fact, know a great deal about writing. He lacks the ability to hold his tongue and constantly speaks out about everything he has an opinion on, which frequently angers those around him.
Mank is a terrific writer who has become disillusioned with the Hollywood system and those around him. He channels all of his anger and misfortunes into the screenplay for Welles’s film, almost using it as a way to vent his frustrations and get back at those who have wronged him. It’s a tragic tale of a downtrodden writer who finally has something to take pride in. The film does touch on the controversy of who deserves credit for the film, which was highlighted in the article “Raising Kane” for The New Yorker, but this isn’t the focus. Mank and Welles famously fought over who deserves credit for the screenplay. The film shows Welles trying to buy out Mank by offering him a substantial amount of money if the writer receives no credit for his work. Mank refuses the offer, instead choosing to fight to receive credit for what he calls the first thing he’s actually proud of. This may seem important, but the film chooses to keep the spotlight on Mank’s character. The controversy is still mentioned, but not until the last 15 minutes of the film.
If I’m going to talk about MANK, I have to give tremendous credit to the man who played him: Gary Oldman. In my eyes, this man is one of the most perfect actors of the modern day, and the film just makes me more confident in that assertion. Oldman perfectly embodies the aloof yet tragic nature of Mank, showing his brilliance, heartbreak, and anger all at once. Mank was a complicated man, and Oldman has managed to portray that perfectly. The supporting cast is just as phenomenal, with Amanda Seyfried standing as the mistress to William Randalph Hearst and an animated Arliss Howard being perfectly cast as Louis B. Mayer. The perfect casting of this film really nails the complicated nature of Depression-era Hollywood. The characters feel like real people instead of just characters in a movie, and really convey the reasons why Mank would write what he did.
From a technical standpoint, the film perfectly recreates 1930s Hollywood and draws heavily from CITIZEN KANE. The film is told in a series of flashbacks, much like the film Mank was creating. Whenever Mank and his typist, Rita, bring something up in conversation, the film goes back in time to give context to his current situation. The film even has a deep focus for much of its runtime, something that has become one of the defining features of Citizen Kane. The whole thing is also shot in black-and-white, and even includes imperfections that would show up on film stock such as the blotches that periodically show up in the upper-righthand corner of the screen. Despite having unlimited access to an immense amount of technological equipment, David Fincher decided to immerse the film in the technical stylings of the 1930s and 40s. The film also uses an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, which is the ratio that RKO used for many of its films around the time that Mank passed away. The film used many techniques to honor the life of Mank and the era he lived in, and this just makes the story that much more impactful.
MANK is a terrific character study. It examines the struggles and pitfalls of Depression-era Hollywood through the eyes of a downtrodden writer who has found a project he can take pride in. Instead of being all about how Mank wrote CITIZEN KANE, the film chooses KANE to be more of a backdrop for who the man was and why he wrote the way he did. It’s casting and production perfectly express what was going on during that time in history, and what made Mank become so disillusioned with the film industry. It might not be exactly what you expect, but it’s definitely worth a watch.