Mank (2020, David Fincher) on Netflix

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I wish I had more time to sit down and review movies given I’ve spent a large part of my life watching movies. I’m only really motivated to do it for special movies amongst all the meaningless junk and B grade filler that is available on streaming and VOD platforms these days.

For me, one newly released movie that stands out is Mank, which is sort of an origin story about the movie Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles.

This movie is in addition to Netflix’s recently financing Welles’ last uncompleted work, The Other Side of the Wind (2018), which was a hot mess for decades before Netflix financed its post-production.

It’s beyond ironic that Orson Welles, who was was unable to find mainstream studio financing for most of his career post Citizen Kane, is now having his works – and movies about his influence – financed posthumously by the biggest mainstream studio disruptor in movie business history.

As an origin story for Orson WellesCitizen Kane, Mank is a worthy addition to the Welles’ books and movies that have proceeded it.  Notably, RKO 281 (1999) with Liev Schrieber as Orson Welles and John Malkovich as Herman Mankiewicz, which I really enjoyed. 

While RKO 281 tells the story from Welles’ point-of-view, Mank flips it and we see it through the eyes of Citizen Kane co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (“Mank”) as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane under the direction of boy wunderkind Orson Welles, who only appears in a few brief scenes.

There’s a pretty good historical argument that Welles’ insisted he take “co-writing” credit on the script even though Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of the screenplay, albeit under Welles’ direction.

The “question” posed by Mank is who deserves “credit” for Citizen Kane, which is an interesting question, albeit elusive. One doesn’t need to know to know an answer to enjoy it for what it is – that question aside, Fincher’s black-and-white recreation of that golden Hollywood era and attention to detail and production design is glorious eye candy – the visuals and frame compositions are spectacular. Fincher even adds in “cue marks” (reel markers) to give the movie a real black-and-white film feel.

Everything in this movie is first rate – the casting from Gary Oldman to Amanda Seyfried, score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and DP work Erik Messerschmidt, who adapted many lighting cues from Greg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane.

My only complaint is how much it sidelined Orson Welles from Citizen Kane’s involvement – he’s really put aside here as almost a side character. It kind of works because the movie doesn’t try to claim Herman Mankiewicz made Citizen Kane the movie, rather he wrote the script.  I didn’t see it as an attack on Welles’ authorship of Citizen Kane the movie, rather this is to give credence to Mankiewicz’s authorship of the screenplay. 

My favorite lines from the screenplay, notably written by David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher:

This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but his memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it.  That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anybody tell you different.

It’s a modern-day version of Quixote … a deluded old noble man that tilts at windmills.  How about we make our Quixote a newspaperman?  Who else could make a living tilting at windmills?

I appreciate giving Mankiewicz is given his due here but Citizen Kane isn’t popular just for the screenplay. Welles’ genius in the construction of it into a movie is what has made it legendary.  It took that great script from Mank – and the vision of Welles – to realize it into what it is – and only Welles could get such a movie made in the first place, at great personal cost thereafter.

One historical revisionism error I found with both RK0 281 and Mank is the casting of far older men to play Orson Welles, who was only a mere twenty-six (26) years old when he made Citizen Kane. In RK0 281, actor Liev Schriber was thirty-three (33) and here in Mank, actor Tom Burke is thirty-nine (39), both of which are way too old to portray the boy wunderkind. That aspect bothered me as it gives a wrong impression Welles was a fully realized adult, when he was really so much younger and naive.