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Amanda Seyfried in Mank.
Amanda Seyfried in Mank.
Photo: Netflix






4/5 Stars


A new version of 1930s Hollywood is told through the eyes of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter, as he rushes to finish the script of the famous film Citizen Kane.


There is something about David Fincher's films that transports you out of your current situation into the world he has created. In The Social Network we were in the negotiation room with Mark Zuckerberg and in Gone Girl we were in on Amy Dunne's schemes. In Mank, we experience the intricacies on 1930s Hollywood.

The film follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the fabled journalist turned screenwriter, as he wrote what many consider to be the greatest film of all time Citizen Kane. The authorship of Citizen Kane has been a controversial topic in film history for many years. It was brought to the fore by an article written by famous critic Pauline Kael in 1971 for The New Yorker called Raising Kane, in which she alleges Mankiewicz wrote the entire Kane script and Orson Welles merely took the credit. Since then, these claims have been refuted but the insinuations have stuck.

Mank, however, is not a film about a battle for writing credit but an exploration of the man himself and what inspired him to write Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz was known throughout Hollywood as a brilliant writer with a witty personality but also for being quite difficult. He was prone to alcoholism, gambling and burning bridges. But he was also the type of man who would be brave enough to take on a figure like William Randolph Hearst and write Citizen Kane.

The film, much like Citizen Kane, is written in a non-linear way. It begins with Mankiewicz arriving at a ranch in a full-body cast, being expected to write the script for Kane while in bed. He is supervised by producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), British stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and German nurse Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann). While dictating the script to Rita, she realises the resemblance between the megalomaniac character of Kane and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. And her questions about this causes Mankiewicz to flashback to his experiences within the studio system: at Paramount Studios in the writer's room pitching ideas to David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), meeting Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) on his magnificent estate, moving to MGM and his working relationship with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and creative producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).

The film explores in detail the relationship between Hearst, Mayer and Thalberg and the influence Hearst had over the studio. It was a cushy relationship. Hearst gave a tremendous amount of money to MGM to get the films he wanted to be made, the stars he wanted to be used (such as his mistress) and, in turn, all of MGM's films were given positive reviews in the Hearst newspapers. Mankiewicz had first-hand experience of this, not only because he was an employee at Paramount but because his wit made him a favourite dinner guest at Hearst's parties at his San Simeon "Hearst Castle". He sees how the trio influence not only the film industry but the politics of the day as well.

The theme of guilt is present throughout the film. Mankiewicz experienced a lot of guilt for not standing up for what he believed in sooner. Such as when Hearst, Mayer and Thalberg used fake newsreels to influence the California election which had the Republican candidate against a socialist candidate Upton Sinclair and the domino effect of that. There is also the guilt of not ever reaching his full potential. Perhaps it is because of his drinking or gambling or because he couldn't help but bite the hand that feeds him, but Mankiewicz never got the recognition he deserved. This makes his fight to get credit for Citizen Kane more understandable as this was the film to win him a Best Screenplay Oscar.

The standout performance in the film is Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies. She completely immerses herself in the role and gives credence to an actress who has become more of a footnote in history and is mostly remembered as a mistress to a powerful man. Seyfried is so charming that she makes me crave for a spinoff or a biopic of Davies alone. In The Cat's Meow, Kirsten Dunst played Davies as a sort of spoilt, playful young girl. Seyfried mixes things up by playing her as more intelligent, very astute and a street-smart girl who knows how to play the system.

The theme of guilt carries to Davies, who seems almost like a casualty in the war between Welles and Mankiewicz and Hearst. The character of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane is one of an alcoholic, unambitious, opera singer and Kane's second wife, with who he cheats on his first wife. Kane builds an opera house for Susan in order to make her a star, in the same way Hearst basically paid MGM to make Davies a dramatic movie star.

However, Mankiewicz and Welles often said Susan was not based on Davies. After the release of Kane, many publications and people drew comparisons between Davies and Susan and many commented that she was taken seriously in the industry again after that. Orson Welles later said he felt guilty about the impression the film left on the world. And Mank makes it obvious that Davies was nothing like the shrill alcoholic Susan was. It sort of gives Davies a posthumous redemption arc and makes her more like the person she was described as by people who knew her.

Another thing I found interesting about the film is that often within narratives about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is the central figure. However, in Mank he is more of a side character. Only 24 years old when he started making Kane, he was known as a wunderkind in Hollywood. The film begins with the title card saying that Welles received an offer from RKO Pictures to make whatever film he wanted. But while Welles is making Heart of Darkness, he sends Mankiewicz to a ranch in Victorville, California, without alcohol, his family or distractions in order to write Kane. Welles checks in via phone now and then and only appears at the end of the film. Welles is in none of Mankiewicz's flashbacks. Maybe that is Fincher's argument for Welles having very little to do with the actual script of Kane, that most of the inspiration for the iconic film came from the observations and experiences of a more seasoned man like Mankiewicz.

The film is shot entirely in black and white and the various nods to films of the 1930s made me often forget this is a recent film. Fincher has always been extremely artistic in his vision and the way this film is put together makes it feel almost like a love letter. Not a love letter to Old Hollywood, the system, Mankiewicz or Kane, but to the art of writing. It shows how human experiences and emotions can affect the end product of content that we love.

Even though the content was extremely interesting, this is by no means a perfect story. At times, I found it difficult to follow between the various flashbacks. Even Citizen Kane was easier to understand because the aspects of Kane's life were told in a linear fashion through the eyes of different people who knew him. I was often confused between when Mankiewicz was at Paramount, when he was at MGM, his role with regards to The Wizard of Oz and the various Hearst parties. There were also various side plots around Rita Alexander's husband, who was away at war, and Mankiewicz's relationship with his brother, Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), who eventually became more successful than he was. These were just not explored sufficiently. The script was written by David Fincher's late father, Jack Fincher, and I think the sentimentality around that prevented them from making the necessary edits to make it more succinct and to give it more action.

Mank is an interesting exploration of a pivotal person in film history who often does not get the credit for their influence on the film industry. However, I don't think everyone will enjoy this film as it often takes a lot of homework to understand. This one is for the writers, for the film buffs and those who believe it is high-time Mankiewicz (and Davies) get the credit they are due.


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