You can't talk about Mank without talking about Citizen Kane. Like many people, I re-watched Kane the day before we watched Mank. I liked it quite a lot this time around ... you never know with classic movies, sometimes they reveal more with each viewing, other times you wonder why you ever thought it was great. Citizen Kane still isn't boring, which is an achievement in itself for a movie that is almost 80 years old and has been watched by yours truly countless times. Many years ago, in the fabled Facebook Fave 50 event a few of us did, I put Kane at #7 on my list. Here is a taste of what I wrote:
Citizen Kane is a group effort. The “authorship” of the movie has been a matter of heated debate for decades (it seems most accurate to say that Welles and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz are co-authors, but that Welles-as-director had a much larger hand in the film that resulted from the script). Gregg Toland might even be more important than Mankiewicz. Toland, the film’s cinematographer, was such an integral part of Citizen Kane that his name appears at the same time as Welles’ in the credits. The look of the film is endlessly fascinating. It looks intriguing even as stills on a page, but to fully appreciate what Toland pulls off, you must see it “in action.”
Mank addresses that heated debate about authorship. Pauline Kael doesn't show up physically ... in 1941, she wasn't Pauline Kael as we came to know her. But she is all over the movie. It helps to know her history with Citizen Kane, but I'm not spending this entire blog post recounting it for you. What matters is that a man named Jack Fincher wrote the initial script for Mank, intending the movie to be made in the 1990s, and that Jack Fincher was apparently very influenced by Kael's notorious essay, "Raising Kane". Fincher only got one screen credit in his life, and it came 17 years after he died, when his son, the acclaimed director David Fincher, used his father's script as the foundation of his own movie, Mank. Kael influenced Jack, David used Jack's script, and the result is Mank. (Given the film turns on issues of authorship, all of this is appropriate fodder for discussion.)
Do you need to know any of this to watch and appreciate Mank? I watched it in a Netflix party with eight family members, and a couple of them might have had some minimal knowledge of the backstory, but I am the only Kael obsessive in the family. It's safe to say none of them loved Mank, but none of them hated it, either, and the holes in their knowledge focused not on Kael and Jack Fincher, but on the enormous number of real-life characters who are barely, if at all, explained in the movie. My wife kept consulting her phone to see who was this or that person. So your enjoyment of Mank will depend a bit on what you know about the characters, not just Herman J. Mankiewicz and William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but also characters like Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer and John Houseman and, yes, Orson Welles, all of whom are important characters in Mank, and, digging even deeper, people like Josef von Sternberg and Norma Shearer, who are in the film but barely introduced to us before they disappear.
In all of this, I am focusing on how Mank fits into the legend of Citizen Kane, and on how an audience who comes to the story cold might react. But I've yet to say whether Mank is actually any good.
Yes, it's good. It is not the definitive word on the authorship of Citizen Kane, any more than was "Raising Kane". Like most biopics, Mank fudges with the truth in the service of telling a story. The acting is variable, or rather, the casting is variable ... Gary Oldman will likely get an Oscar nomination for his performance as the title character, but in truth he's too old for the part. Amanda Seyfried gives a kind performance as Marion Davies, and I'm always glad to see Tuppence Middleton from my beloved Sense8 in anything (she plays Mank's wife). Fincher and his team put a lot of work into the look of Mank, which is a black-and-white film that doesn't exactly emulate the look of Kane. The recreation of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s is entertaining. Whichever Fincher was responsible for the words we hear on the screen made certain to include most of Mank's famous bon mots, even if they don't always turn up where they were actually said.
I don't know ... for some reason, I hoped that Mank would be something more than just an artfully-made biopic. My expectations were dashed, but the film is no disaster. And since its take on Mankiewicz, Welles, and Citizen Kane is largely Kael's, and since Kael is my icon, I found it enjoyable to see what others made of her work. In fact, the one thing I took away from Mank over all others was that I wish Pauline were alive to see it. I'd love to read her review.