Directed by David Fincher
Steaming on Netflix
The first time I saw Citizen Kane was on Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies on TVO. I remember him talking about Kane and Orson Welles and Greg Tolland and Robert Wise and Bernard Herrmann and deep focus and temporal jump-cuts and camera placement being as important as the dialogue. I also remember having no clue what Mr. Yost was talking about, but I knew Robert Wise’s name because he had directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture and thought maybe this was some kind of old science fiction thing. I wasn’t a very smart kid.
Two hours later I still didn’t know what deep focus was. But I did know I had just watched something capital-I Important. Capital-I Important and entertaining and fun and moving. I wanted to explore the shadowed rooms and never-ending mirrors and giant fireplaces of Xanadu. I wanted to walk the offices of the New York Inquirer. Kane may be one of the Greatest Films of Ever, but it is also one of my favourite films.
Mank is ostensibly about the making of Kane, but not really. Sort of. The centre of the film is the weeks Herman Mankiewicz spent in Victorville, California recovering from a car accident that broke his leg in 3 places. He has a nurse, an assistant, and an anxiety ridden John Houseman to keep him company. He was sent there by Orson Welles to write the first draft of what would become Citizen Kane. The film moves backwards through time, flashing back to Mank’s life 10 years before when he first entered the inner orbit of William Randolph Hearst. And that’s the elevator pitch of the movie, really - the story of the first draft of Citizen Kane and how Herman J. Mankiewicz turned on his one-time benefactor. Which sounds like it would only appeal to some film geeks.
But Mank is so much more than a niche film for Old Hollywood nerds. Like other David Fincher films it is about loneliness, about self-destruction, about people that never stop making the same mistakes even when they learn to recognize those mistakes. Mank shares these traits with other Fincher characters like Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, Holden Ford in Mindhunter, Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Like those characters, Mank knows his alcoholism is killing him, he knows he should stop saying whatever witty insult that has just popped into his head, that he should stop pushing allies and friends away. He knows this behaviour will leave him alone and broke and unemployable.
This is a long-winded way of trying to say that Mank is as much about Citizen Kane as The Social Network is about Facebook or Zodiac is about serial killers. So, yeah, Mank is about loneliness and self-destruction. It’s also about creating and cynicism, about reality versus nostalgia. There’s plenty in Mank to chew on, like almost every other film by Mr. Fincher.
But, I can hear you asking, is Mank any good? Glad you asked. Yes, yes it is. It is very good. With rare exception the performances are all top shelf. Gary Oldman as Mank, Charles Dance as Hearst, Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Mank is like some kind of one film Oscar pool.
And the film looks glorious. Most modern black and white films are missing those grey hues and shades of blacks that we find in films from the black and white Hollywood era. Mank looks like it was filmed in the 40s and somehow transported to us. The defects are all there, the loss of resolution, the cigarette burns that told projectors when to switch reels, the slight scratches at the end and beginning of a reel. There is no modern film that feels like this one feels.
And this goes to the sound design. Instead of stereo, the film is mono, dialogue and sound effects and music on one channel and mixed to sound like you’re experiencing the film in a grand movie theatre. And somehow the period-authentic beautiful score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross isn’t lost.
The experience of Mank is like if it’s 8 decades ago and you just bought a ticket to watch it in one of those grand palatial theatres. I know I’m not doing it any justice here and I’m making a mess of it, but there really is nothing like Mank and hasn’t been in decades, if ever.
So, yeah. Mank is all kinds of fun, it isn’t a niche film experiment meant to be seen by film nerds only. I really believe that someone with no knowledge of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, that someone who has never once watched Citizen Kane will enjoy the heck out Mank.