“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”
These words from Oldman’s Mankiewicz (Mank, to his many associates) describe perfectly the achievements of two separate films that converse with each other through time.
They build each other’s myths up, forging links between generations that add new dimensions to the cortex of Hollywood’s (occasionally justifiably) self-aggrandising lore.
All players agree, in Fincher’s sparkling and tender-hearted Mank, that the script Herman J. Mankiewicz has drafted is the best thing he’s ever written.
In the context of its lasting legacy, that script has proven to be arguably one of the best English-language screenplays ever written.
Mank is the man who wrote Citizen Kane.
He is given, by Oldman, a vivaciousness that does justice to a man who appeared warm, droll and often self-aware, but ultimately compelled towards his vices in too destructive a fashion to accommodate the full extent of his talents.
Fincher’s film traces the life of Mankiewicz over intervals throughout the 1930s, moments during which led inevitably to the development of an anarchic relationship between Orson Welles and Mankiewicz, which produced the screenplay that brought Charles Foster Kane into public consciousness.
There is a distinction between “smugness” and admiration that critics frequently fail to account for, and Fincher’s film is a celebration of the innovative mastery of medium that Citizen Kane exhibited.
Mank pays homage to the source material through its recurring shots in deep focus, its tightly paced and witty dialogue exchanges, and its ability to layer moments – past and present – so that threads in the story running concurrently help establish a full sense of a person.
This effect is created without a hint of elitism. Not every homage is accessible only to an inside circle.
Mank will certainly provoke a hunger to revisit Welles’ magnum opus, but it will do so having laid out a roadmap, signposting structural qualities of the film in a framework which can be used to watch that fine yarn with a purpose.
The most astonishing thing about Herman J. Mankiewicz and his screenplay is that he could just as easily have never written it.
(Although, on balance, that could be said about almost all works of culture since time immemorial.)
Part of the charm of early Hollywood is how unbelievably messy it appeared. Hard-nosed and demanding executives pushed for innovation, but also popular appeasement, and hired their creatives in a manner that was relatively organic.
Sometimes all it might have taken to get a picture made was dumb luck and privilege. The production process was corrupt, exclusive and selective.
But there were certain renegade qualities about the film industry that disappeared with the professionalisation of moviemaking, including the magic of spontaneity that manifested in imperfectly shot takes.
That sense of danger that came from the trial-and-error production modes and the embodied, human experience of filmmaking was brilliantly rendered in the scene which has Mank walk into a shoot for one of William Randolph Hearst’s (Charles Dance) Westerns.
Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is about to be burned at the stake on set, in character. She sees Mank approaching across Hearst’s San Simeon estate, where filming is underway, and beckons him over.
Their rapport is instantaneous, and Davies is played by Seyfried as a radiant, playful wit who is at once self-assured and self-deprecating. Asking Mank not to laugh, she confesses: “I am being burned at the stake and I am dying for a ciggie-boo!”
Cinema was full of risk-takers, which goes a long way to explain how a nonlinear narrative like Citizen Kane could ever have been adapted for screen, especially at a time when enthusiastic audience reception was the determining factor in a picture’s success.
What Mank expresses so intelligently is that perfectionism is miles apart from flawlessness.
Flawlessness is dull, and professionalism – that is a myth in itself, emphatically driven by the compulsion contemporary society has towards placing an exchange value on every element of our productivity in and out of work.
Commodification of creative thinking is the death of our natural propensity for curiosity, and desire for lifelong learning.
In the film, perfectionism manifests itself as auteurship, and it is – paradoxically – shown to be an imperfect and unprofessional quality that is difficult to manage, but is of inestimable value to the creative process.
Mank’s approach to writing is a fair representation of the synthesis of creative ideas, which should allow for periods of crescendo and flow to the same degree that it permits aridity and blankness.
His method is haphazard, and the shadow of his alcoholism looms over his broken body, ready to engulf him while he is stationed in bed – having been seriously injured in a road accident (depicted as being largely the fault of a fast-talking friend.)
But his addictions and his misfires – the social faux-pas that he committed in front of Hearst and Mayer (Arliss Howard) – they do not detract from the man’s vivid personality.
His storytelling is made richer from his experiences, and his growing antagonism towards those Hearstian figures in his acquaintance allows him to express the contrast between his values and theirs indirectly by constructing the proto-Murdochian Charles Foster Kane.
Mank is rather dysfunctional across all areas of his life, propped up continuously by his practical antitheses – the female figures who are steadfast elements in his otherwise chaotic lifestyle.
“Poor” Sara (Tuppence Middleton), his endlessly tolerant wife, and Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his stoical but sensitive secretary, are the facilitators of Mank’s work, providing him with the support he needs to survive in the material realm so that he can retreat into his metaphysical one.
The interconnectedness of memories and episodes in Mank’s life over a series of years give the impression that the vintage ‘selves’ that he has been before have never left him, and they continue to live on as he – a mature man, with an elaborate personal history – evolves and matures himself, as time moves forward.
The film is a retelling of a man who is retelling another man’s life, and turning that into a picture about a man’s life being retold. This is the beauty of storytelling; the more Mank’s microverse expands, the further we can trace the labyrinthine connections that wove his art together.
Mank shows what it takes to be an auteur.
It is about the fact that something spectacular can emerge from the right combination of chance factors and a full, passionate application of vision in the development of a unique idea.
it’s about the man
who wrote Citizen Kane.