Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is one of those iconic and beloved pieces of cinema that has been endlessly devoured and dissected for years. Film scholars, critics and fans have marvelled over everything from the film’s craft to the fact that the then 24-year-old director was given absolute autonomy to realize his vision. Often forgotten in these conversations though is the film’s co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who was instrumental in shaping Welles’ masterpiece.
David Fincher’s Mank aims to reframe the narrative by giving Mankiewicz the spotlight that history has robbed from him. Directing a script written by his late father Jack, Fincher’s film is not so much about the making of Citizen Kane, or even about Mankiewicz’s writing process while working on the film, but rather about those who held the power at that time. While there are plenty of scenes involving a bedridden Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) working on the script with his assigned typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), the film is more interested in reflecting on an era when the lines between Hollywood, journalism, politics, and celebrity culture were blurred.
Recreating Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, Fincher’s film takes great glee in capturing every detail of the era. Whether it is through the black-and-white aesthetic, which gives the illusion of being transported into an RKO Pictures film, or the lavish set designs and lightening that manage to make a billow of smoke from cigarette captivating, the allure of this era is easy to see. Fincher effectively conveys a time when money and art were inexplicably linked, creating a vicious cycle that tested loyalties and one’s own moral compass.
In envisioning how a man like Mankiewicz, who was a brilliant writer and struggling alcoholic, navigated this glamours and destructive terrain, Fincher constructs a film filled with snappy dialogue, colourful characters and an underlying pathos flowing throughout. Unfortunately, there is also a sense of distance between the film and its subject. For all of Mankiewicz’ drunken antics and numerous interactions with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), both of whom provide inspiration for the characters in Citizen Kane, he ultimately remains an enigma.
Perhaps if Fincher had delved deeper into Mankiewicz’s home life or his relationship with Welles (Tom Burke), the film would have been more insightful. As it stands, Mank is fascinating from a technical standpoint, but one never fully gets to know the man behind the script.