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Review: 'Mank'

The world knew him as Herman Mankiewicz, the Hollywood writer who shared a Best Screenplay Oscar with Orson Welles for the highly-acclaimed movie Citizen Kane (1941). It was the only Oscar that Citizen Kane won.

His friends knew him as “Mank.”

(Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz)

If he had written Citizen Kane and never written anything else, he would have been remembered forever. Arguably, he was the best in the business, which is why Welles brought him aboard.

Welles, the young Broadway star who became a household name following his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, had been lured to Hollywood by RKO Studios.

In an unprecedented move, they offered the 24-year-old, wunderkind, first time director, complete control of whatever project he chose to produce.

(Tom Burke as Orson Welles)

Veteran directors were enraged that an upstart, “Boy Genius” from New York would be given more creative control than they could ever imagine to have within the restrictive Hollywood Studio System.

He was envied and despised the first day he stepped onto the studio lot. By all accounts, he loved it, referring to RKO as the greatest toy train that any kid could ever have.

But things didn’t work out as planned initially.

His first project was an attention-getting adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which he planned to shoot from a first person perspective.

The audience would see the movie through the eyes of its main character. The camera would essentially be the character.

But the project was ahead of its time, from a technical perspective and proved impossible to do; proposing it signaled that Welles was intent on breaking rules, pushing boundaries and shaking things up.

He was a bad boy who wanted to ruffle some feathers.

So he moved on, deciding to make a thinly veiled version of the life of William Randolph Hearst, the most powerful newspaper publisher on the planet.

It would parallel the details of his life, including his scandalous affair with Hollywood starlet Marion Davies and his opulent, sprawling mansion known as San Simeon.

In the movie version, Hearst’s character became Charles Foster Kane (to be played by Welles himself). Davies became Susan Alexander. San Simeon became Xanadu.

From the beginning, Welles set out to make a movie that was guaranteed to incur the wrath of Hearst.

But it was more than that. He wanted to make a splash artistically as well.

And he set about to hire the best people in the business to make a movie that would not only draw fire but also set the bar impossibly high from a creative and technical standpoint.

He was a creative genius and he intended to do what had never been done before.

Veterans like cinematographer Greg Tolland jumped at the chance to work with this dreamer and the seemingly impossible production challenges he would present to them.

Among the dream crew that Welles wanted was Herman Mankiewicz, a witty, enormously talented Hollywood writer who struggled with a short list of self-destructive personal demons including alcoholism.

Welles, a remarkable judge of raw talent, knew that Mank could deliver the goods.

What emerged is considered one of the best if not the best screenplays ever penned.

It was groundbreaking, telling the story of Charles Foster Kane from conflicting, multiple character perspectives.

It was a story that began with Kane’s death. It was a mystery about his final utterance “Rosebud” and its significance of what it meant.

It was a film noir detective story on a grand scale. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

For me, Citizen Kane is at the top of my top 10 list of movies.

It was innovative and breathtakingly original on a number of levels. And it stands the test of time.

So, when I heard that David Fincher (who I respect immensely) was doing a movie version about Herman Mankiewicz and his involvement with Citizen Kane, I was excited.

Even more so when I read that the script was by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher. I couldn’t wait to see it.

David Fincher’s mastery of cinema is evident in every meticulously photographed, black and white frame of Mank.

It convincingly transports you back to Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties. The casting is superb.

Everyone bears a strong resemblance to their historic counterparts beginning with Gary Oldman in the title role.

The sets and art direction are stunning. The imaging is trademark David Fincher.

The problem is that Mank never lives up to the tantalizing tease implied in the trailer namely, a proverbial fly on the wall perspective eavesdropping on Mankiewicz and Welles as they labored to flesh out the story and script.

(Gary Oldman on the set of 'Mank')

Granted, some of the movie does touch upon that process, but the narrative drifts off into Mank’s personal problems and the politics of the times.

Yes, we get to meet some of real Tinsel Town legends along the way, such as Hearst’s good friend Louis B. Mayer and Mayer’s right-hand man, producer Irving Thalberg.

(Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer and Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg)

We meet Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried) and her inner circle of friends including a brief appearance of Charles Chaplin.

(Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies)

We glimpse the outrageous, exclusive parties at San Simeon that always included a guest A-list of Hollywood royalty.

It is backdrop to Mank’s friendship with Davies that provided Mank with the juicy details of Hearst’s life that only an insider would know.

That included Hearst’s pet nickname for Davies most intimate, private part (Rosebud).

Details like this infuriated Hearst when he learned about Citizen Kane.

He also fumed at the unkind and unfair depiction of Marion Davies’ character (Susan Alexander, in the film) as an annoying, shallow, talentless mistress.

He famously offered to buy the film negative from RKO in order to destroy it.

The movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend, as is the story of the making of the movie. It’s what you want Mank to be.

What it is, instead, is a rambling account of Herman Mankiewicz’s life leading up to the writing of Citizen Kane.

Two things are required to really get the full benefit of this story: familiarity with the movie Citizen Kane, in order to pick up on all the references, and some background in the the film history of the Thirties and Forties, in order to recognize all the then-famous stars and celebrities who drift in and out of the frame.

It’s a movie that perhaps attempts to do too much with backstory unrelated to what we came to see.

Namely, the collaboration of two of Hollywood’s greatest talents and the creation of what is arguably the best screenplay ever written.


Mank is in theaters and on Netflix.

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