David Fincher’s MANK (2020, streaming on Netflix) tells the story of the how the script for the classic film CITIZEN KANE came to be, revealing a corrupt Hollywood and something of the inspiration of the film himself, media baron William Randolph Hearst, through the lens of the scriptwriter. I found it a bit pompous and a little tedious until the story took hold, where it becomes quite beautiful, and in the end, while I didn’t quite love it, I found much to admire.
Set in the 1930s and early 1940s, our hero is screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (brilliantly played by the great Gary Oldman), an alcoholic wit working for MGM, headed by Louis Mayer and funded by William Randolph Hearst. In the past, we see Mank befriend Hearst, who keeps him around as a sharp if amusing and harmless court jester. In the present, Mank is writing CITIZEN KANE for Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke, who eerily gets the iconic voice right), despite all the pressure and warnings about the consequences of messing with the rich and powerful. Almost all the major characters are based on real people, and many of the major events are at least roughly based on what really happened.
The film is a loving homage to 1940s films and CITIZEN KANE itself, mirroring it from its structure to its examination of a life to its use of black and white film, hefty score, and pointed transitions. As for Hollywood, there is little romanticizing, presenting it as a dirty business where workers received big pay cuts during the Depression while Louis Mayer lived like a king, and where actors were used in political smear campaigns.
As I said, at first I found the film to be somewhat pompous, from its heavy handed music and effects to its stilted, witty dialogue to its delivery of the overwrought trope that is the alcoholic but rascally writer. Despite its light heartedness, it’s heavy lifting. The more I watched, however, the more the story revealed itself like a puzzle (much like CITIZEN KANE itself) and the more interested I became until by the end if I wasn’t in love with it I was certainly liking it a lot and admiring its subtle complexity.
Overall it’s an enjoyable and very interesting film, and I would recommend it for its unique flavor alone.