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‘Mank’ Isn’t a Love Letter. It’s a Withering, Cryptic, Flawed Missive.

David Fincher’s latest film covers the infamous feud at the center of ‘Citizen Kane’ between its director and screenwriter. But it’s much more than an ode to old days of Hollywood.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note, Dec. 4, 2020: Mank officially hits Netflix this Friday. Here’s our review of the film, which was originally published in November.

In David Fincher’s Mank, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) stares out at the world with a lazy, half-lidded confidence in his own supremacy. That is, until he’s challenged, at which point his dark pupils blaze and dilate, combining with his close-cropped Caesar haircut and goatee to give a man referred to by one collaborator as a “dog-faced prodigy” a devilish, quasi-demonic aspect.

The satyr-ish look makes sense in the context of Mank’s dateline. Circa 1940, Welles was negotiating with RKO to make a movie out of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness; his plan was to play both the heroic Marlowe and the malevolent despot Kurtz, drawing out the story’s themes of duality while using an innovative first-person perspective. Concerned about the project’s inflated budget as well its anti-fascist undertones in a moment before America had entered World War II, the studio executives passed. As a Plan B, Welles went with a rollicking, all-American satire about a millionaire turned newspaper baron called Citizen Kane. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

Welles’s yearning to produce Heart of Darkness is one of several midcentury Hollywood myths exhumed in Mank, which is set primarily in the months before Citizen Kane’s production, with regularly interspersed flashbacks to the mid-1930s. The film is dense with allusions to period-specific pop culture icons, power brokers, and politicians, all swiftly identified and impersonated with aplomb by a carefully chosen cast of actors. What’s particularly fascinating, though, is how Burke’s physical appearance has been styled to resemble not only Welles, but another micromangerial filmmaker. When the mercurial maestro rages at Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) over the latter’s late-breaking request for official credit on Citizen Kane’s script—the real-life conflict that provides Mank with its dramatic motor and most contentious set of talking points—Burke tries his damndest to channel Welles’s singular charisma. And while he comes up well short of the mark, he does look an awful lot like David Fincher.

Welles once famously referred to the cinema as “the greatest electric train set any boy ever had,” and the ability to make those trains run on time is the hallmark of tyrannical filmmaking talents from Alfred Hitchcock on down. In Citizen Kane, Welles’s remarkable efficiency as a 25-year-old multi-hyphenate was less important than his expressivity: Viewed nearly 80 years later, his debut vibrates with inventiveness in every frame and every cut, compressing time and exploring space with supernatural skill. No wonder so many directors have taken him as a model.

For some, Fincher is already in the first rank of cinematic taskmasters, but for all of its predictable precision as a piece of craftsmanship, Mank is also an odd outlier—in his career and in the subgenre of Welles-centered cinema. It marks the first time that a major American director has made a movie that is at least partially about Orson Welles but not primarily aligned with him; it mostly uses the great filmmaker as a foil for its actual protagonist. That’d be Oldman’s righteously embittered screenwriter, who takes center stage in narrative cleverly patterned after Citizen Kane—as an investigation into the motives of a ruined, inscrutable older man. Mankiewicz was two decades older than Welles when the pair collaborated on the movie that would go on to define both of their careers, and their after-the-fact rivalry spoke to a mutual competitiveness that turned beautifully ugly; reached for comment after learning he was to share the Best Original Screenplay Oscar with Welles, Mankiewicz cracked, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’s absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’s absence.”

It’s intriguing that Fincher, who’s never written any of his movies, would invest his energies in a movie that venerates a wordsmith while also deconstructing—though not necessarily demolishing—the monolithic institution of auteurism. The self-deprecating complexity of this venture—right on down to Burke’s Welles-as-Fincher appearance—is what gives Mank its fascinating tension. For a movie made by a perfectionist, it’s not remotely perfect, with numerous sequences and subplots that feel extraneous or underdeveloped; the fights it picks with certain figures in film history are ultimately losing battles. But it’s nevertheless admirable as a movie of ideas—rich, contradictory ones about art, commerce, and the hazardous intersection between industry and ideology.

Mank arrives late in a year in which movies big, small, and Nolan-sized have struggled for critical and commercial traction; the emerging narrative is that it is an awards season contender—a status that the director’s earlier, more directly subversive films mocked outright. (“I’d like to thank the Academy,” quips Edward Norton’s narrator after a brutal scene in Fight Club, a gag that translates to “I am Jack’s Complete Lack of Oscar Prospects.”) This supposed Oscar-friendliness derives from the idea that Fincher the cynic has gone soft and penned a “love letter to the movies.” Sounds nice, but the cliché is off-base here, misinterpreting Mank’s ambivalence about its chosen milieu and the power of cinema to reshape reality. “You know what a love letter is?” asks Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. “It’s a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker”—an assessment that’s actually closer to Mank’s wounded, passionately vindictive spirit.

The other ready-made story about Mank is that it is an uncommonly personal project for Fincher, owing to its script having originally been written 30 years ago by his father Jack. In a recent interview with Vulture, the director revealed that he had told his father about Mankiewicz’s story after reading Pauline Kael’s controversial 1971 essay “Raising Kane” on a microfiche at high school, and that Jack—a hard-driving journalist smitten with fast-talking Hollywood comedies—recognized the writer as a kindred spirit. “He went off and gave it his best shot, but it ended up being limited in its scope,” explained Fincher, who eventually solicited rewrites from Eric Roth. (Jack Fincher passed away in 2003.) “[His script] was [about] a great writer obliterated from memory by this showboating megalomaniac.”

Fincher’s own reputation as a preternaturally talented brat was forged around the same time that his dad was writing Mank—in the early 1990s, on the set of Alien 3, which he disparagingly referred to in the same interview as “a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate.” The experience of being creatively constrained at every turn—and denigrated as a “shoe salesman” by his frustrated producers—left Fincher with a chipped shoulder that’s never totally healed. Hence the vengeful temperament of breakthrough hits like Se7en and The Game and the prankish juvenilia of Fight Club, whose bullet-headed subversives splice male genitalia into kiddie matinees and use their precious bodily fluids to “season the lobster bisque” at high-society functions.

Fincher has since flirted with being a prestige filmmaker—he went soft for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and piled on Oscar nominations—but his bile duct isn’t quite empty yet. There is a key moment in Mank where the title character vomits a gourmet meal back at his deep-pocketed hosts, explaining politely that “the white wine came up with the fish.” It’s a great line for a character defined by his inability to keep his mouth shut, and it crystalizes the film’s romantically unromantic conception of its hero as a messily messianic drunk, slurring truth to power.

The fable of Don Quixote gets invoked several times in Mank, and Oldman’s flawlessly laconic performance conveys the weariness of a man long since resigned to tilting at windmills. As the film opens, Mankewicz is a spent force, laid up with a broken leg in a ranch house in North Verde Ranch, California—a writer in traction and on deadline. These scenes are static—and a bit stilted—but flashbacks capture Mankewicz’s glorious past as a rumpled word-slinger, galloping between studio assignments—and open-bar studio parties—like a freelance hell-raiser, secure in the knowledge that he’s always the smartest guy in the room. “Your only competition is idiots” he writes in a telegram to his younger brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) by way of invitation to live and work in L.A. (Joe would write his own poison-pen missive to showbiz in the form of All About Eve.)

The giddy humor of the 1930s sequences, which pit Mankewicz and his writers’-room pals against each other in games of coy one-upmanship and as a united front against MGM’s reigning braintrust—including Arliss Howard as the voluble mogul Louis B. Mayer—activate the same pleasure centers as The Social Network. A scene when the scribes pitch a monster movie, filling in character and plot details one line at a time, has the ping-ponging velocity that shows the director and his editor Kirk Baxter at their best, fusing speed, clarity, and sarcasm in a way that can leave a viewer breathless. In these passages, Mank is mining territory adjacent to the Coen brothers’ classic Barton Fink, but while the Coens imagined John Turturro’s transplanted New York playwright as a phony with a phoned-in social conscience, Fincher uses Mankewicz to embody the possibility of genuine (if sardonic) idealism—all the better to see it crushed by the business of business as usual.

The mystery of exactly how Mankewicz went from a virile, unflappable gadfly to an embittered, perpetually soused elder statesman resembles the puzzle-box structure of Citizen Kane. The presence of Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, who was widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Welles’s film and worked after the fact to suppress its release, provides the film with its formidable villain—an avatar of glad-handing power who invites Mankewicz into his inner circle and barely flinches when the writer’s wit gets weaponized against him. Fincher introduces the newspaper tycoon hitching a ride on a backlot camera dolly while his young mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) films a scene in which she’s being burned at the stake—a brilliantly satirical image connoting Hearst’s VIP status as he literally rides shotgun on the cinematic apparatus. The visual language here is eloquent and funny; when Mank ascends the makeshift pyre to talk to Marion in between takes, he’s like a raggedy white knight attending to a damsel in distress.

Dance and Seyfried both give terrific performances, inhabiting both halves of a relationship whose mercenary undertones drive Mankewicz to despair, seemingly more out of protectiveness than unrequited affection. One of the great tropes of film noir is the crusading do-gooder who helplessly watches as an immoral man of means possesses a beautiful young woman, and it’s painful to watch Mankewicz’s fondness for Marion curdle in sync with his contempt for Hearst. His frustrations culminate in Kane’s barely veiled showgirl Susan Alexander, a social climber trapped in a loveless (and sexless) marriage to Welles’s increasingly hateful Hearst stand-in.

The relational vertices between Mankewicz, Davies and Hearst were previously examined in “Raising Kane,” which may have provided Mank with its inspiration but is hardly the template for its overall argument. Kael’s essay argues that Mankewicz is the main author of Citizen Kane and that Welles tried to deny him credit on the basis of a carefully jerry-rigged contract before grudgingly conceding the point; while the basic setup is true enough, the critic keeps piling on speculation and half-truths until she’s crafted a jeremiad against auteurism as a whole. Besides being a transparent attempt to corner an argument she’d started a decade earlier in the (much better argued) “Circles and Squares,” “Raising Kane” is sketchy as film criticism; calling Citizen Kane a “shallow masterpiece” is ankle-deep stuff.

The impact of “Raising Kane” was to first degrade Welles’s reputation, and then Kael’s; the piece has been largely debunked on the grounds of selective and/or shady research, including, ironically, accusations that Kael used another writer’s research without citation. Mank does not go so far in denigrating Welles, nor does it question his artistry. It does, however, depict him unflatteringly in limited screen time. Thus, the movie will inspire renewed defenses of the iconic filmmaker, and those hoping to see Kael rebutted once more will be disappointed, or even infuriated. But to write Mank off because it declines to idealize Welles—a volatile, acid-tongued genius whose greatness was always bound up with his ego—is knee-jerk and lazy. It’s as futile as ragging on Barton Fink for misrepresenting Clifford Odets, or—and given his limited screen time, this is probably a better comparison—dismissing Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood on the basis of the Bruce Lee sequence.

Mank has been luxuriously shot by Erik Messerschmidt in shadowy black and white, with scattered, affectionate visual references to Citizen Kane itself: high ceilings; deep-focus compositions; significantly placed mirrors. These nods to nostalgia barely disguise Mank’s palpably contemporary subtext, which chronicles the quashing of a political movement—specifically, the 1934 California gubernatorial challenge of muckraking-novelist Upton Sinclair. As a writer, Sinclair railed against front-running greed and corruption. As a politician, his bid was sprinkled with a similar salt-of-the-earth ethos as he advocated for tax reform and used “End Poverty” as a slogan. In the context of the Great Depression, Sinclair was the political equivalent of Tom Joad, a fighter on behalf of a battered population; to Hearst and his cronies, he was a canary in the coal mine for an encroaching American communist groundswell. Mank’s “Rosebud” moment comes when Mankewicz makes an offhand remark about about using studio resources to attack Sinclair’s campaign. He’s joking, but Hearst and the MGM contingent act on it, effectively recasting their hard-drinking, anti-authoritarian “court jester” as an accidental architect of fake news.

As a political filmmaker, Fincher works more abstractly than peers like Oliver Stone or Spike Lee, whose movies are expressly styled as counter-mythological visions of American history. Typically, Fincher is more interested in how history is textured—in the exactitude of his period recreations, how things look and sound—but Mank has an urgency that supersedes its fetishistic aesthetics. The film is spacious enough to suggest parallels between the communist paranoia spouted by Hearst in 1934 and the Hollywood Blacklist scandal a few decades later; it also permits a more contemporary allegorical reading positing Sinclair as a predecessor of Bernie Sanders, a left-wing revolutionary undermined at a potentially transformative moment by the powers-that-be. And make no mistake: Fincher and his film see this as a tragedy.

As a “love letter to the movies,” Mank is as coded and cryptic as any of the Zodiac’s missives; as a study of media titans remaking the world in their image, it’s as quietly frightening as The Social Network. That Fincher’s achievement falls short of Citizen Kane is less important than its mixture of principle and showmanship, the same synthesis sought separately and together by Welles and Mankewicz, which was in short supply then and even more so now.