PLOT: Screenwriter Herman J. MANKiewicz (Gary Oldman) is hired by a twenty-four Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the script for what would go on to become one of the greatest films ever made, CITIZEN KANE. But, to Mankiewicz, the script is more than just the last-ditch effort to revive his career his inner circle thinks it is. Rather it’s a way for him to exorcise some personal demons relating to his friendship with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
REVIEW: CITIZEN KANE is a movie every true lover of film has to contend with. While it’s reputation as the greatest American film of all time precedes it, and indeed makes it a daunting project for more casual cinema-goers to delve into, the fact is director-producer-star Orson Welles wasn’t necessarily trying to make art with it. He simply wanted to make a film that would entertain and perhaps push the medium in some way. He was – after all – the consummate showman and no one ever suffered more from Kane’s reputation as the greatest film ever made than he – as everything he’d ever do afterward would be scrutinized and inevitably critics would say, “it’s no Citizen Kane”, but then again what was?
In the eighty years since it’s come out, there has been debate in some scholarly circles about who was the true author of CITIZEN KANE. Pauline Kael notoriously put forth the theory that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was the true auteur, while Wells, at other times, said he was the sole writer. Whatever the case, the two shared screen credit, and sure enough at the time the only Academy Award the film took home was for the screenplay.
David Fincher, working from a script by his late father Jack Fincher, seems to adhere to the notion that CITIZEN KANE was a deeply personal script by Mankiewicz, although the film doesn’t posit to take anything away from Wells himself (played here by Tom Burke – who sounds so much like Welles I wonder if Fincher played with the audio). After all, he also starred in, produced, and directed the film. But, as far as MANK goes, Fincher makes it clear Mankiewicz, as played by Gary Oldman, wrote the screenplay as a way of exorcising some demons. The film is more about his relationship with William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, the two figures he based Kane on than anything else. The result is a dazzling work that probably could have only ever been made by Netflix, with them allowing Fincher a lavish budget to tell a Hollywood tale that makes no allowances for anyone not familiar with the period. Even some of his long-time fans may need to do a little research before putting this in the queue.
The film uses a flashback structure to juxtapose a laid-up Mankiewicz in 1940 writing the screenplay with a secretary, played by Lily Collins, helping him while Welles crony John Houseman worries the script will never get written. But, the real meat and potatoes of the film come through the lengthy flashbacks, depicting Herman’s fabulously successful career as perhaps the greatest studio script doctor of all time, and a pseudo court jester for Hearst, played by a terrific Charles Dance. He becomes enamored with Hearts’ long time mistress, Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfriend, in a potentially Oscar-worthy part (the resemblance between her and Davies is uncanny). For those not in the know, Davies was a movie-star, with many noting her exceptional comic gifts, which were sidelined when Hearst decided to remake her as an “important” actress in dramatic roles, which torpedoed her career.
Oldman plays Mank as a Bon Vivante, happy to drink and gamble his way to oblivion, as long as he’s having fun while being enabled by his loving wife, who everyone dubs “Poor Sarah”, and is played by POSSESOR’s Tuppence Middleton. What puts him into conflict with Hearst is the Gubernatorial campaign of Socialist Upton Sinclair. He’s running on an “End Poverty in California” campaign that would surely spell doom for the money-men, particularly Mank’s patrons, Hearst and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, played by a terrific Arliss Howard. He sees first hand how these two use film to slant the election in favor of their candidate, and worse – he enables them – leading to self-loathing and his eventual try at redemption with Kane. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but Oldman contributes one of his finest performances ever, and if the Oscars are happening this year, he has to be at the top of everyone’s list as a best actor contender. Fincher’s style is a knockout, filming everything as if it were a movie made in 1940, complete with cigarette burns from reel changes and an evocative mono soundtrack that gives everything a faint echo. You’ll feel like you’re sitting in a movie theater, with only his decision to shoot in his usual 2:35:1 scope ratio a contemporary give away. Well, that and some rampant F-bombs.
Again, MANK is designed for movie aficionados, and if you’re no interested in at least watching CITIZEN KANE before watching this, you might as well not bother – it’s not for you. But, if you’re game you’ll be rewarded with a priceless glimpse into the history of the movies and the way they really can shape the world we live in – for better or worse.
As a side note, if you see MANK and you find yourself intrigued by the story, buy the CITIZEN KANE Blu-ray set. It has a priceless documentary, “The Battle for Citizen Kane”, that fills in a lot of the gaps as far as the story goes, as well as a star-studded HBO movie called RKO 281 that tells the same story from Welles perspective, with Liev Schreiber as Wells and John Malkovich as Mank. It’s not a patch on Fincher’s film but it’s intriguing on its own merits.