The topic of authorship isn’t typically a question in most artforms. A writer wrote their novel. A playwright composed their play. But when it comes to movies the concept of authorship becomes murkier. That’s because film is a collaborative artform. It’s common for many to place authorship of a movie on a film director, mainly due to a misunderstand as to the auteur theory. (Simply, the auteur theory is rooted in the old Hollywood studio system where critics, mostly French, found thematic and stylistic tendencies in works of old Hollywood directors regardless of genre.) Perhaps no film in history has been the subject of so much speculation and arguing over the concept of its authorship than Citizen Kane. Widely considered the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane was the directorial debut of Orson Welles and told the story of a newspaper mogul in the mold of the William Randolph Hearst. In the decades since its debut, there have been those that claimed cinematographer Gregg Toland actually directed the film and that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the film alone despite Welles’ co-writing credit.
Acclaimed director David Fincher wades into the contentious waters of Kane with his new biopic Mank, which clearly posits Mankiewicz as the sole author of Citizen Kane. While Mank may draw fire for its (disputed) historical account, the real problem with the film is that it lacks a dramatic thrust to its narrative. Mank is a film that boasts a stellar cast delivering strong performances and a magnificent production design captured in stunning black and white cinematography captured by Erik Messerschmidt, and yet Mank fails to craft a captivating story around one of the most famous movies ever made and the surly drunk who wrote it.
We first see Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) in 1940 as he arrives at a small ranch in Victorville, California. Mankiewicz, affectionately known by his friends as Mank, is convalescing after a car accident broke his leg in three spots. While recovering, Mank will be working on a new script for Hollywood’s new wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The ranch where Mank is staying prohibits alcohol, which isn’t a welcome development for the alcoholic scribe. In crafting the screenplay that will define his legacy, Mank is aided by the young secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and Welles’ collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Mank’s work in Victorville is the jumping off point for the film, which through flashbacks will unravel just how Herman Mankiewicz went from William Randolph Hearst’s tight inner circle at Sam Simeon to spilling all the dirt in the screenplay of Welles’ masterpiece.
The flashbacks take us back to Mank’s days a contract writer at Paramount, working alongside such illustrious writers as his own brother Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), and Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), the nephew of silent movie starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Through his acquaintance with Lederer, Mank is able to enter the good graces of Davies’ romantic partner, the infamous newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearth (Charles Dance). Years later, Mank has shifted studios over to MGM under the leadership of Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), whose unscrupulous and shameless business practices draws the ire of Mankiewicz. That dislike of Mayer swells around the events of the 1934 race for Governor of California, with Mayer and Heart backing the Republican nominee and Mank being the lone voice in San Simeon willing to back the acclaimed socialist writer Upton Sinclair in his gubernatorial bid.
Whether or not the events portrayed in Mank are historically accurate is immaterial. There’s much debate as to whether or not Herman Mankiewicz was an avid supporter of Upton Sinclair’s campaign. The problem is that the film fails to make these moments of an ideological struggle playing amidst a power struggle very compelling. The dirty tricks unleashed by Hearst and Mayer to stop Sinclair are a fascinating historical nugget, but these events unfold without the least bit of tension. The stakes to this political fight never materialize. The class conflict at the heart of the political struggle never takes root. It’s emblematic to so much of Mank – it has all the elements of greatness without actually achieving greatness.
The screenplay for Mank is credited to director David Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher. While there’s nothing bad to be said for David Fincher’s attempt to honor his father by producing this screenplay, that screenplay is, unfortunately, the weakest element of Mank. Structurally Mank is taking its cues from Citizen Kane, and though I do believe it to be a clever approach the film is unable to make that connection deeper to the story unfolding. Citizen Kane endures because we will always have media moguls and oligarchs; idealists who turn their back on their once strongly held ideals; and men isolated by wealth and power, incapable of buying the one thing that eludes them – love. Mank, on the other hand, is the story of a drunken screenwriter who composes his masterwork out of spite because of politics. That’s not a slight on the immense work of Herman J. Mankiewicz as much as an encapsulation of why Mank falls short of greatness.
It’s towards the conclusion of Mank that the film is finally able to generate some genuine intrigue. Though he signed a contract saying he refused a screen credit, Mankiewicz goes toe-to-toe with Orson Welles over a screenwriting credit. This sequence, while disputed since Pauline Kael published “Raising Kane” in 1971, firmly asserts that the screenplay is Mankiewicz’s alone. I have no dog in this fight, though I’m inclined to believe the script for Citizen Kane is the product of collaboration. It’s so frustrating in this film because the raw drama between Gary Oldman and Tom Burke on the screen brings a level of drama that is mostly absent from the previous two hours. The power struggles between Mank and Mayer or Hearst never pays off the dramatic dividends that occurs between Welles and Mank in a fraction of the time. Towards the end of Mank you really get the sense that the film should’ve just focused on the behind the scenes battle over the crafting of Kane.
David Fincher is one of the best filmmakers working today, but Mank is a modest misfire from the usually sturdy director. There’s a lot to admire about Mank – it’s gorgeous and well-acted from start to finish. However, Mank is so muddled thematically and politically that it fails to connect beyond aesthetics. The authorship of Kane will be debated well past the point that we’re all in the ground and Mank adds little to the decades-long debate. In the end, Mank, like the writer it’s about, merely stands in the large, looming shadow of Citizen Kane.
- Overall Score
A visually lush, well-acted journey through Hollywood’s dark past, David Fincher’s Mank fails to pay off dramatic dividends in its disputed tale of Herman J. Mankiewicz and the fight over the authorship of Citizen Kane.