You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours,” Herman J. Mankiewicz says. “All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”
The movie Mankiewicz refers to is Citizen Kane—arguably one of the most well-known movies ever made—but the line does double duty for Mank, the latest from director David Fincher based on a script from his late father, Jack Fincher. Those two words: “Citizen” and “Kane,” are never uttered in Mank (Mankiewicz’s working title, American, is used instead). Regardless, the famous film and its infamous director, Orson Welles, loom over Mank, informing every aspect of the story while simultaneously supplying the framing device.
Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, a pouchy 43-year-old screenwriter who spends most of his days drinking and smoking. A car crash leaves Mankiewicz broken and bedridden in a Victorville cottage with a nurse (Monika Gossmann) and a typist (Lily Collins), both supplied by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) so Mankiewicz can finish the script he promised Welles (Tom Burke). While writing in the cottage, Mankiewicz flashes back to his time at MGM, his brief intersection with studio/state politics, his battles with boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), his friendship with Marion Davies (an excellent Amanda Seyfried), and her mogul husband, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), whom American is based on.
That’s a lot of players, and Mank has dozens more—including a brief cameo from Bill Nye as author turn politician, Upton Sinclair. For those who love stories of Old Hollywood, Mank certainly gives the impression of Tinsel Town under the studio system but fails to do much more than scratch the glossy black and white surface. Same for Mankiewicz: We see the moments he mined for his American script and the behind-the-scenes hypocrisy that motivated Mankiewicz to lay his career on the line. In one scene, Mankiewicz demands Welles not remove his name from the script, even though the contract says Welles can. “It’s the best thing I’ve done,” the used up scribe pleads.
He was right in that regard. Drinking would consume Mankiewicz, and he would live only another 11 years after Kane’s release. Three decades later, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael would publish two lengthy essays calling into question Welles’ writing contributions to Kane, declaring Mankiewicz the true author of the screenplay. “In that period, it was well known that if the producer of a film wanted a screenplay credit it was almost impossible to prevent him from getting it.” (Raising Kane). And so, the movie’s screenplay is credited to both Mankiewicz and Welles, ironically earning them both an Academy Award—the only Academy Award Kane saw. Ditto for Mankiewicz and Welles.
Reading through Raising Kane, Kael’s main gripe with Welles’ credit seems to be that he went off to infamy while Mankiewicz slipped into obscurity. But the year was 1971, and the director—often referred to as the “auteur”—was king. So fellow filmmaker and Welles acolyte, Peter Bogdanovich, shot back with an article of his own, this time in Esquire: “The Kane Mutiny,” in October 1972.
That’s a story that could make for an entertaining movie—at least more entertaining than Mank is. Both Finchers side-step the question of Kane’s authorship by having Mankiewicz turn in his 300-plus page draft to Welles and then jump ahead to the Oscar ceremony. The draft I found online, dated June 18, 1940, comes in at 214 pages. The movie is even less: 119 minutes (average Hollywood math equates one page to one minute of screen time). Who tossed out the missing 100 pages from Mankiewicz’s draft to Welles’ shooting script? And when, then, were the cuts made to get the movie down to under two hours?
Maybe I’m off-topic. Mank isn’t about Kane at all. It’s about Mankiewicz, the court jester, destroying himself with alcohol and plundering it for posterity. It’s about the suffocating nature of the studio system, politics as usual, men running the world while women wait in the wings (if at all), and how the wealthy ignore reality until they can monetize it. And it’s all pretty flimsy. It’s an impression, all right, and not a very deep one at that.