Review

  • 11 September 2021
    It seems ironic that in trying to bolster the claim of maverick Hollywood screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, the "Mank" of the title, to sole authorship of the screenplay of arguably the best and most famous (or infamous) movie in Hollywood history, "Citizen Kane", David Fincher's film should meet similar claims of duplicity and distortion.

    Personally, I find it hard to believe that in conceiving, directing and acting in the finished film, Welles wouldn't have contributed majorly to the screenplay, especially given the evidence of his future movies. One need look no further than his later acknowledged, uncredited input to Carol Reed's brilliant "The Third Man", the memorable "cuckoo clocks" speech. Moreover, early in this film, Welles's Mercury Productions associate, John Houseman, pointedly encourages Mankiewicz to push for even a shared writing credit which it seems he wasn't about to get at all or even expect, which of course he did receive in the end.

    Does it really matter then whether he did or didn't write the whole screenplay? To film buffs and historians, the answer is probably yes, but it does tend to over-dominate the rest of this fascinating man's chequered life. I'm fine with Fincher's attempt to at least reclaim Mankiewicz's subsequently diminished claim to the Oscar, especially as it's the only one he ever won, although the same could be said for Welles too. The thought occurred to me however whether two such rebellious anti-establishment figures as these would even care about baubles such as the Oscars, but then again I'm not in movies.

    Fincher certainly presents a beautifully realised pastiche of the era with stunning monochrome cinematography and witty dialogue, both often containing insider nods to "Kane", no doubt for avids like me. The now disputed attribution of Mankiewicz's motivation in turning against his former friend, William Randolph Hearst and by association his mistress Marion Davies, with whom Mankiewicz appeared to have a special bond, to Hearst's part in engineering the defeat of writer and socialist activist Upton Sinclair's 1934 bid for the California governorship does again seem a bit of a stretch. This especially when one learns that the depicted suicide of the director of the phony newsreel clips allegedly commissioned by Hearst which Sinclair attributed to his defeat from the jaws of victory, was itself a complete fabrication by Fincher and his writers. Which I have to say is where it gets murky for me and in fact I believe does a disservice to Mankiewicz's memory.

    Viewed as a behind-the-scenes insight into Golden Age Hollywood film-making, "Mank" is a joy and is helped in this by fine performances at its heart by Gary Oldman as Mank, even if he seems old for the part (unlike Amanda Seyfreid who by contrast seems way too young to play Davies) and Tom Pelphrey as his also gifted brother, the writer and future producer / director Joseph Mankiewicz, but in the end, when its central attempt to add a full stop to the whole "Who wrote 'Kane'" debate leaves instead, at least a semi-colon, if not a question-mark, for me, it rather undermines the point of the whole movie.