Sixty days and a noodle.
Who wrote Citizen Kane? It’s a question that should have a definitive answer considering it’s hailed as the greatest film of all-time after winning a single Oscar out of nine nominations: for original screenplay. Yet the debate rages on. Or maybe it’s better to say that those who believe there is a debate continue declaring that one exists. Pauline Kael wrote a 1971 New Yorker article that posited how director/producer/star Orson Welles added nothing of value to Herman J. Mankiewicz’s original draft. Many others refuted her claim en route to discrediting it with Peter Bogdanovich scribing a damning rebuttal. Because both men ultimately received their Oscar regardless of their credit controversy three decades prior, the fact they never worked together again probably explains everything we need to know.
By that I mean that both probably deserved it. Mankiewicz broke the story, structure, and characters while Welles polished it to work within his vision—as frankly all directors do whether or not they demand notice for it. Things get complicated due to a Mercury Theatre contract wherein Mankiewicz relinquished his rights to the credit only to then fight for it through the newly minted screenwriter’s union, but some actually say it was Welles who inevitably volunteered his collaborator take top billing. It’s therefore ironic that a film superficially about this struggle would go the opposite direction. Written in the 1990s by Jack Fincher for his son David to direct, Mank would be shelved for three decades. Despite posthumous rewrites rendering it less “anti-Welles,” Jack retains sole credit.
This is the difference between script doctoring and rewriting—a difference that frankly ensures the final result remains “anti-Welles” anyway. Why? Because the entire film is built with a similar flashback structure to Citizen Kane with each foray into the past revealing a reason for why Mankiewicz wrote what he did as a not-even-partially-veiled scree against William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer. And if this entire film centers the fact that Herman was the sole curator of every major plot point in Welles’ debut, then we’re firmly entrenched in the “doctoring” camp for anyone else sharing recognition. Orson’s claim is thus cemented as the by-product of the contract rather than the work. Without one scene of him adding something substantial, Fincher’s film ostensibly proves pro-Kael.
But I digress. I used the word “superficially” above because Mank isn’t about who deserves what at all. The final ten minutes may deal with this friction as a means for light bulb-sparking script additions and epilogue comedy, but the true crux of the story revolves around Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) laid up in bed with a broken leg reminiscing about the political and personal tragedies of the previous decade in order to dictate a fictitious account of them to his typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). What was it like working in Hollywood on the cusp of World War II? What was it like having an inside glimpse of America’s wealth disparity growing larger in real-time due to the Great Depression? Where did Mank’s narcissism end and activism begin?
That’s what Jack Fincher’s account accomplishes above all else. It positions its subject as a man of integrity even if he only coaxes it out from the bottom of a bottle and the crippling sense of shame from willingly “playing” the game. We’re watching as Mank opens his eyes to the fact his snide jokes about and around the powerful men signing his paychecks aren’t being told amongst friends. They’re instead being twisted by vulture-like opportunists into a new game plan that’s hell-bent on keeping their pockets filled and the workingman down. Each attempt by Mank to force his targets into feeling shameful remorse actually makes them stronger by supplying the tools towards an ill-gotten victory. The subsequent guilt haunts him as they sleep soundly through the night.
Citizen Kane is his revenge. This script gives form to the ways in which money and power corrupt those who strove to never be corrupted. And since we already know how Mankiewicz weaves that narrative together, the scenes in which he’s writing pale in comparison to those that send us back in time. That’s not to say they aren’t entertaining, though, with alcoholism as farce, a handwringing John Houseman (Sam Troughton), and a rather amiable Welles (Tom Burke) on the phone. Such humor merely comes across as the two-dimensional filler stringing the real intrigue together since Mank obviously won’t fold to those telling him the script is too much (Tom Pelphrey as his brother Joseph, Joseph Cross‘ Charles Lederer, and Amanda Seyfried‘s Marion Davies). They’re included as segues.
That’s okay too because what they connect is truly great. The dinner parties at Hearst’s (the consummately calm Charles Dance staring daggers at those putting feet in mouths around him) are always entertaining. The numerous walks on the MGM lot allow Arliss Howard to steal every scene he’s in as Mayer’s ruthless, crocodile-tearing manipulator. And the few scenes pitting Mank opposite Davies really deliver the film’s heart due to them seemingly being the only two people in Hollywood playing both sides without yet having to truly pick one above the other. Add a Goebbels-infused faux newsreel (think the beginning of Kane) and the soul-selling depression of Irving Thalberg’s (Ferdinand Kingsley) unwitting puppet Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) and Mank’s reasons for vengeance come into crystal clear focus.
If I were to really question any decision about the whole, it would be casting Oldman. Don’t get me wrong—he’s truly great at embodying Mankiewicz’s drunken yet forever sharp wit. The problem is that he’s playing forty-three years old despite being sixty-two. The complaint is usually that women are cast too young, but they’re all playing pretty close to their real-life counterparts’ ages. I guess you could argue that Mank’s drinking problem made him look much older than he was (a joke in this vein is included towards the end), but the discrepancy tests our suspension of disbelief nonetheless. It’s the single aesthetic misstep to an otherwise meticulously produced period piece (Would Fincher deliver anything else?) complete with top right corner cue marks designating fictional reel changes.
And shelving it for thirty years might have been the best outcome since a big reason was Fincher’s desire to shoot it in black and white—a freedom Netflix provided for him to create some gorgeous imagery. The wait also renders the politics much more relevant with “disinformation” talk and comparison points between 1930s Germany and 2016 America. That aspect of the story is thus what truly stands out above the behind-the-scenes Kane packaging … something that should get those calling for today’s Hollywood “elite” to stay in their lane frothing at the mouth (Mayer’s GOP shilling notwithstanding). A lot is therefore happening beneath the surface of this known drunken court jester-centered biopic and those willing to absorb it all should have a jolly good time.
 Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.
 Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz, Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Tom Pelphrey as Joe Mankiewicz.
 Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies.