Mank: A Writerly Life of Words, Alcohol and Inner Conflicts in 1930s Hollywood

The drama behind 'Citizen Kane' is deftly brought to life by David Fincher in his most personal film.

David Fincher’s Mank, streaming on Netflix, is a movie about the movies. It’s set in the 1930s, when monolithic studios had monopolised film production, distribution and exhibition. They also ‘owned’ the artistes through work contracts. Mank is about ownership, too, but the studios form the backdrop. At the centre of it are two individuals – a young maverick, Orson Welles, and a seasoned screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz. It is the tussle between an auteur and an author – and at stake is the writing credit for an iconic American drama, Citizen Kane (1941). But stripped to its essence, Mank is the story of a writer, a writer drowning in words, misery and alcohol; a man with a blazing wit who often burnt himself.

Mank alternates between two time periods: 1940, when a bedridden Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) recovering from a broken leg, has to finish the film’s screenplay in 60 days and the immediate past, chronologically sweeping the ’30s, depicting the writer’s evolving relationships with a newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and his mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who are about to become characters in his screenplay. If Citizen Kane were about the rise and fall of a media baron – about the glitz and gloom of American success – then Mank is a making of that making, a meta-narrative approach that also tells the story of Hollywood.

Fincher recreates that era with earnest simplicity, occasionally using our knowledge of the people and period to sly comedic effect. The black-and-white visuals evoke vintage Hollywood. Welles gets a dramatic entry – filmed from behind with a tilted camera – befitting his persona. The contrasts between him and his collaborator are stark: the “wonderkid” about to shake Hollywood, a “washed-up” veteran tired of the industry. A filmmaker given complete creative control; a writer barely in control of himself. A filmmaker who will not take no for an answer, a writer assailed by numerous questions.

The introduction to different flashback segments – appearing on the screen in the format of a screenplay (“Ext. Paramount Studios — Day — 1930”), accompanied by the sound of a typewriter’s ding – furthers the playful, meta feel. The early Hollywood portion, taking cues from its central character, is relaxed and droll. Mankiewicz knows that he’s ‘just a writer’, and uses self-deprecating humour to dilute his self-loathing. There are other visual and verbal references highlighting the decade: chats about “talkies, gangster flicks and zanies”; deep dissolves and circular cue marks; an upbeat punctuating jazz score. There’s also self-awareness about the writing process. “You cannot capture a man’s life in two hours,” Mankiewicz tells Welles’ associate – a challenge unifying both Citizen Kane and Mank.

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The movie becomes increasingly political, as it digs deep into the ’30s – the decade of the Great Depression, of social, political and economic change – showing the seamy side of the film industry. The robber barons had waned by then, but Hollywood, still controlled by a few conglomerates, continued living in the Gilded Age. Louis Meyer (Arliss Howard) , the co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a glib talker and a smooth suit, announces the slashing of workers’ salaries with faux empathy, calling his studio a “good family”. Mank registers these changes with impressive lightness, evolving into a film probing the fissures between labour and capital. That strife also marked California, Hollywood’s home, where Upton Sinclair, a famous novelist and a socialist, ran for the state’s governor as a Democratic nominee. Hollywood fought back by backing a propaganda documentary.

It is this background that illuminates the foreground, where Mankiewicz, a sympathiser of workers’ rights, starts feeling isolated. The pomp of his social circle – comprising studio executives, actors, business magnates – pricks him. Spending time with people who lack political awareness and literary appreciation, Mankiewicz is often both the smartest and the dumbest person in the room. This circus, resembling a king’s court, revolves around Hearst, giving Mankiewicz a ringside view of a world that prioritises power over people – a story of capitalist American excess, of Hollywood and, ultimately, of Charles Foster Kane.

Examining avarice, vanity and artistic compromise, Mank could have been a gloomy drama. But it is surprisingly tender in several segments. Fincher occasionally liberates Mankiewicz from the tropes of a tormented writer to reveal his latent softer side. The best example of that is a scene in Hearst’s estate – or Xanadu, as Citizen Kane would call it – where, amid a late-night party, Mankiewicz goes on a long walk with Davies. In that brief stretch, he is the best version of himself: sensitive, acerbic, funny. He bares the hypocrisy of Hollywood elites, expresses his admiration for Sinclair, and recites poetry — deftly melding his lines with those of Cervantes.

As they amble outside Hearst’s mansion – which is so huge that it accommodates varied wildlife – the scene’s verbal and visual elements commingle in a quiet dance. When Mankiewicz says, “Jail is not something an animal like Mayer is likely to forget”, an elephant trumpets in the distance, raising its trunk, as if taking offence to that comparison. Later, as he concludes a story about Sinclair’s artistic integrity, he points towards a craning giraffe, saying, “Now that’s sticking the old neck out”.

Such linguistic finesse recurs throughout the film – a style befitting the protagonist, for he was a renowned wit. Originally written by Jack Fincher – the filmmaker’s father – and later reworked by Eric Roth and David, Mank pays tribute to the screenwriter through sharp, funny lines. Mankiewicz cautions the director of a propaganda film thus: “What you’re making is not a newsreel: it is not news, and it is not real.” To a pestering union member: “What the Screen Writers Guild needs is an apostrophe.” On seeing Davies on a film set, where she’s standing on wood logs about to be burned at the stake: “Well, what’s at stake here?” Moments later, when she bums a cigarette from him, something literally burns at the stake. When his nurse shares a drink with him, saying “prosit”, as he’s working on the screenplay, it sounds like a literary command: “Prose it.”

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Oldman turns in an arresting, entertaining performance. He excels at depicting Mankiewicz’s disenchantment with the world – lurching from benign to fiery – via a unique mélange of humour, anger and snark. Mankiewicz was a man of many moods, and Oldman sustains that intrigue. Seyfried is equally compelling. Her Davies always craves a home: a loudmouth like Mankiewicz, she feels out of place in the Hollywood parties, where painful propriety is an unspoken rule. Seyfried makes Davies vulnerable, candid and funny – a stark contrast to the people she lives and works with – implying that she is acting even when the cameras are not rolling.

This is Fincher’s most personal film. His father, Jack, had written a few screenplays, but none of them saw the screen. So, Mank is also a filial tribute: a son immortalising his father 17 years after his death. Fincher has never written his directorial projects, but here he bats for a writer, showing warm artistic empathy. Mank doesn’t dispute Welles’ genius but spotlights a writer’s contribution, dimmed by the passage of time and obscured by the wattage of a filmmaker’s brilliance.

The movie ends with Citizen Kane winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Neither Welles nor Mankiewicz turned up for the ceremony. It then cuts to the voice of the real Welles in a radio press conference, commenting on the win and taking a dig at his co-author. Mankiewicz appears on the screen next, holding the Oscar, giving an informal acceptance speech. True to his nature, he humbles Welles through word play and humour. In Mank, the writer has the last laugh and the last word.