David Fincher’s latest film is also one of his most unusual – a kaleidoscopic account of the life of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, while he was working on the script for Citizen Kane. The promotional material for the film suggested that the screenplay, which was written by Fincher’s father Jack, would focus mainly on the tense relationship between Mank and Welles, while questioning the way in which posterity has tended to attribute the brilliance of Citizen Kane to its director rather than its screenwriter. However, Mank is considerably more elliptical and elusive than those early trailers suggested, instead taking us through a whirlwind of impressions and experiences as Mank filters them through his semi-inebriated sensibility, and intercutting them with copious flashbacks and asides that make Fincher’s film every bit as dense, cryptic and circuitous as Citizen Kane itself.
Before we’re even introduced to Mank, however, Fincher beautifully captures the ambience of Hollywood at the time when Citizen Kane was being prepared. In recent years, a certain flattened black-and-white look has become par for the course in art cinema, as if to suggest that classical Hollywood can no longer be evoked visually, or by recourse to cinematography alone. We see something of this exhaustion in Twin Peaks: The Return, which explicitly juxtaposes its own black-and-white scenes with excerpts from Sunset Boulevard, but it’s also there in a whole range of recent releases, from the oddly denuded classicism of Pawel Pawlikowski’s’s European period pieces, to the black-and-white film that comes back to haunt Julianne Moore’s character in Maps to the Stars, to the shlocky black-and-white of The Artist.
Fincher is so scrupulous about his cinematography that he would never permit Mank to descend into this same black-and-white flatness. Instead, he approaches classical Hollywood from the perspective of sound, dissocating sound from image until both feel more plastic and palpable. Unlike films made in the digital era, the sound and vision here seem as if they were recorded separately, and only put together as the film was being edited post-production. Right from the beginning, that prevents the seamless mediation between world and film so typical of modern cinema, as Fincher evokes the otherworldliness of classical cinema – the exotic remoteness of the world it presented, which can make Mank a little inaccessible at first, but seductively immersive when you lean into its distinctive atmosphere and ambience.
This focus on sound naturally extends out to the film’s focus on writers, and its central thesis: that the dawn of Hollywood marked cinema as a writers’ medium, creating an unexpected synergy with contemporary television, which also tends to be driven by showrunners more than directors. While the gorgeous sound design and visual flamboyance of Mank deserves a lavish theatrical screenings, its writerliness is also very attuned to television in the present moment, making it one of those rare releases that sits at the very cusp between cinema release and Netflix release – perhaps only fully digestible when watched in both venues. Since Jack Fincher passed away seventeen years ago, and never saw his son’s adaptation, this elegy for the writerliness of classical cinema, and celebration of the writerliness of contemporary television, takes on a particularly personal and pregnant significance as the movie proceeds.
“Proceeds” is, however, a simplistic term for the pacing of Mank, which subsumes conventional characterisation and storytelling into a kind of intensified writerliness, driven by the verbal density, peppy pace and economic brevity that characterised early classical Hollywood. After all, Mank is only set eight or nine years after the birth of sound cinema, at a time when speech was the most original and exciting cinema technique, and in a Hollywood milieu where every genre partook, to some extent, of the lexical density and intensity of screwball comedy. Oldman’s performance follows suit, evoking the capacity of early sound cinema to capture the inherent charisma of speech and the sheer suavity of the voice – the ability of the voice to bring a whole languorous body language and being-in-the-world along with it, which Oldman embodies here beautifully, in one of his best ever roles. These languorous vocal trajectories are even more intense for the fact that Mank spends most of the film inebriated, and in a leg cast during the scenes set in the present, meaning he’s either lying on his bed spinning words out into the night, or else staggering from one drunken yet luxuriant monologue to the next, as the film dextrously makes way for his various passages.
This sublime sonic field also makes the visual elements of the film seem more tangible and beautiful by comparison too, since they no longer have to do the heavy lifting in terms of evoking the classical era. With the soundscape, and Oldman’s delivery, situating us firmly at the cusp of the 40s, Fincher’s compositions draw on the experimentalism of the Hays Code era – and the unique chance that directors had at this time to make bold visual statements in plain sight. At times, Fincher contemplates the limits of black-and-white cinematography to capture the past, as in a spectacular scene when Mank first meets Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried, in the guise of a human sacrifice – atop a fiery pire, under a burning sun, with bright lights shining on from every angle. This exhaustion of bright light gives way to a series of atmospheric night scenes that gather Fincher’s trademark gloom around a series of even more unbearable bright points of light – moments when you can almost see the silver nitrate breaking through the celluloid, so luminous is this gloom and the light that it cushions.
These gorgeous scenes emerge largely as projections of Mankiewicz’s mind, which gradually organises his environment (and the film) using many of the techniques that we might normally associate more with Welles’ visual style. Immersed in the growing conflict between Upton Sinclair’s socialism and the free market ideology of William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, Mank (and Fincher) have to resort to increasingly cryptic and circuitous structures to position themselves, especially because they both clearly empathise with the left-wing politics espoused by Sinclair. In the final scene, Mank reminds Hearst that he had socialist tendencies in his own youth, and Hearst retorts by proving to Mank that he’s more invested and complicit in right-wing Hollywood than ee might care to admit. Much of the film is spent trying to process these different levels of complicity and corruption, along with the presumed impossibility of a socialist California, displacing both Mank and Fincher in a similar manner to Welles’ protagonists, much as the final scene with Hearst anticipates the cavernous spaces of Kane. Similarly, the only real fight between Welles and Mank, which revolves around Mank’s desire for a writing credit, and which is intercut with the showdown with Hearst, provides Mank with the final inspiration he needs to complete the climax of Kane.
This sprawling structure ends up revivifying Citizen Kane by recovering it from three ways in which it tend to be simplified – as an act of auteurist singularity from Welles; as a splendid piece of aesthetic formalism that changed the entire history of film; and as a straightforward allegory for Hearst, who is as displaced from Fincher’s film as Kane ultimately is from Welles’. In the same way, Fincher displaces the agon between Mankiewicz and Kane, preventing any real equivalence between Kane and Hearst either, along with the temptation to make Kane Welles, and so transform Mank’s screenplay into a direct allegory of its own composition. Refusing all these options allows Fincher to reimagine Citizen Kane as a negative space, a place where Mank takes the vortex of industrial and class history that surrounds him and tries to imagine its shifting epicentre. Instead of being a full stop in film history, Kane can only be glimpsed here, indirectly, as a concatenation of ideological energies that are raised but never resolved, and whose questions will go on to define the next decades of classical Hollywood.
For Fincher, this is what makes Kane so important, along with Mank’s role in it – the way it gathers the ideological struggles of the 1930s into a myth of their resolution that can only be disassembled by moving away from Welles’ own myth of auteurist authorship. The last scenes in the film follow his squabble with Mank for writing credits, while the very last sequence details their shared receipt of the first ever Academy Award for Best Screenplay, claimed only by Mank since Welles was away filming The Magnificent Ambersons. Whereas Citizen Kane is often taken to cement the ambitions and possibilities of classical Hollywood, Fincher and Mank read it as a repository of the lingering questions of pre-classical Hollywood – aesthetic and ideological questions that remain open today, as this remarkably unique film reminds us.