Review by William J. Hammon, of the I Actually Paid to See This blog
By all accounts, Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest. Twice the American Film Institute has named it #1 on their list of the 100 best films. It’s on numerous “best of” lists from renowned film critics. It’s one of only three films to have a perfect 100 rating on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It is inarguably a masterpiece and a landmark achievement in film.
So how does one tackle the enormous task of telling the story of how it came to be? Orson Welles was no doubt a genius in his own right, but contrary to the anti-labor, anti-union ending moral of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, such a monumental work of cinematic art does not come down to just one man (or two in the Coens’ case). With Mank, modern auteur David Fincher takes the intriguing approach to profile the man behind the giant Kane posters, Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the film. Using a script written by his late father Jack, Fincher molds a parallel Charles Foster Kane story out of Mankiewicz’s Hollywood career, highlighting his wit, intellect, and personal failings in a way that presents Citizen Kane as an almost autobiographical airing of grievances, all the while crafting a film in a similarly parallel style to that great film that excels on almost every level, creating a worthy origin story to one of the most beloved and scrutinized stories ever told.
Gary Oldman stars as “Mank,” holed up in a dry house (both alcohol-free and in a desert) in California, recovering from a leg injury and given a mere 60 days from Welles himself to write the first draft of the screenplay, for which he’s agreed in advance not to accept a writing credit due to his fall from grace at the major studios. Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke, who just nails Welles’ voice circa 1940) has basically been given carte blanche from RKO Pictures for his next film, and he’s leaning heavily into that creative control, attempting to micromanage every aspect, including knocking a month off of Mank’s writing schedule so that the press doesn’t get wind of the salacious story and secluding Mank away from the studios and his normal vices, though Mank has his ways around that last bit.
Much of the film’s plot jumps back and forth from the “present” day of the fall of 1940 to the old Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, where Mank wrote some of the classics we all know and love today, like The Wizard of Oz and Pride of the Yankees. He schmoozed with the best of them and knew the ins and outs of the “game,” including how to incorporate new, young writers and even get his brother Joseph (who would have his own storied career as a director) his first foot in the door.
This is very much Oldman’s film as a performer, but unlike other leading showcases, the supporting cast is exceptional on their own. Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones) plays a jovial William Randolph Hearst, the man upon whom Charles Foster Kane was based. Amanda Seyfried puts in a career-best performance as acclaimed actress and Hearst mistress Marion Davies. Arliss Howard (Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket, my all-time favorite film) has an excellent turn as MGM studio head Louis Mayer. Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) plays Mank’s secretary, Rita Alexander (the inspiration for the name Susan Alexander Kane), who has more agency and character development than just about any support/servant role I’ve seen of late.
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