They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but sincerity and flattery do not always go hand in hand with artistry. When “Citizen Kane” premiered in 1941, it readily showcased the inherent insincerities of narrators in storytelling and malleability of personal truths, and it was far from flattering to its allegorical subject, William Randolph Hearst. From scriptwriting to editing, the film was orchestrated, hyperbolic and altogether grandiose in the best way possible.
Orson Welles’ film may imitate Hearst’s life but its importance and style is not limited to being a satire of one man. Yet in making a film about the life of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, director David Fincher, screenwriter Jack Fincher (David Fincher’s late father) and company have decided to imitate “Citizen Kane,” drawing parallels between Mank’s life and his script. While this certainly honors the film’s legacy, its story and style fail to complement each other. There is so much interesting history in this film, but the lack of focus on the film’s stronger emotional threads and a confused style leaves “Mank” in the shadow of its own titanic inspiration.
The film opens with Mank (Gary Oldman), now an aging alcoholic screenwriter, who arrives at an isolated house in the Mojave desert to write the “Citizen Kane” script for Orson Welles (Tom Burke). As Mank writes the screenplay, the film frequently transitions to a parallel flashback narrative exploring Mank’s life in Hollywood, his relationship with his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), and his experiences with many figures from 1930s Hollywood, including Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s notable significant other Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). As the deadline for Mank’s script approaches and word spreads that he and Welles are working on a picture satirizing Hearst, pressure mounts on Mank to drop the project and walk away. “Mank” ebbs and flows between the protagonist’s past and present selves, examining the relationship between Mank’s past and the script he’s writing in the present.
The film is altogether a mixed bag that requires a lot of context, from that of 1930s Hollywood and America to that of “Citizen Kane.” However, since “Mank” doesn’t spend much time explaining who its characters are and why they’re important, the film is needlessly inaccessible to non-film buffs.
Other than the film’s digital black-and-white palette, which may please some and irritate others, its non-linear structure is the most obvious stylistic homage to “Citizen Kane.” This, however, creates some problems for “Mank.” While the use of flashback in “Citizen Kane” may have been revolutionary, the structure is all too common now; even Fincher himself is no stranger. Having two timelines that illuminate each other over the course of the film is an undoubtedly solid framework and keeps an audience engaged. Non-linearity is a tool that’s ripe with creativity, as films like “Rashomon” and “Pulp Fiction” prove. Sadly, this tool was poorly utilized in “Mank.”
While “Mank” acknowledges Herman Mankiewicz was interested in using non-linearity and multiple narrators to suggest that no one could truly understand Charles Foster Kane, Fincher’s film doesn’t seem to understand the implications for its own style. “Mank” has a singular narrator and its camera, in its lack of style, presents a story that lacks the nuance and uncertainty that made Welles’ film so special. While “Citizen Kane” leaves viewers with only a glimpse of who Charles Kane truly was, “Mank” suggests a deep understanding of its titular character. The plot, moreover, also lacks strong conflict to give it momentum: The section about Mank’s past, while more engaging, is far less organized. This awkward structure coupled with a mostly uninspired approach to cinematography makes for an experience that isn’t bad, just surprising: how can a movie about the making of one of the most famously stylized films of all time lack almost any style?
The real star of the film is its dialogue. Oldman is full of wit and he delivers his lines harmoniously. The portrait “Mank” paints of classical Hollywood is a joy to follow as well: with a menagerie of famous figures of cinema lore, the film features William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O’Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) and more. The troubled friendship between Mank and Marion Davies, along with the conflict between Mank and the Hollywood oligarchy, feel like the emotional core of the film and seem like experiences that could have inspired “Citizen Kane.” If “Mank” could have honed in on the emotional intensity of the past storyline and presented itself in a more stylized manner, it would have been a more visually interesting film and could have lived up to the legacy of its inspiration. But as the film feels far too tied to the plot of Mank writing his screenplay it isn’t able to focus on the story that might actually engage its audience.
Perhaps if the film hadn’t paid such great homage to “Citizen Kane” and poorly utilized parallel timelines, Mank’s personality, rather than his renowned screenplay, could have been the true star.
In many ways, “Mank” mirrors Fincher’s “The Social Network” more so than Welles’ “Citizen Kane”: it is a biopic told through flashbacks about a genius in the process of creating his crowning achievement. But while “The Social Network” had Aaron Sorkin’s razor-focused script, the writing in “Mank” while verbally impressive at times, has a mix of goals and interests that don’t mesh. Mank is a fine character, sure, but there’s little about him that leaves the audience wanting to understand him better. To put it simply: Mank has no rosebud.