Screenwriters don’t dream of getting their name above the title. But in David Fincher’s remarkable Mank, a screenwriter’s name is the title. The movie zigzags across a turbulent decade in the life of Herman J Mankiewicz, including the months he spent writing American – better known as Citizen Kane. That title isn’t spoken until the end of Mank – it has a taboo quality here, like Macbeth – and, even then, it is drowned out by the applause at the 1942 Academy Awards, where the film wins Best Screenplay. If that sounds like a happy ending, think again. The prize was split between the crumpled 44-year-old Mankiewicz (“Mank”), who insisted he wrote the script alone, and Orson Welles, 26 and in his pomp.
Gary Oldman plays the Hollywood veteran, his fringe hanging listlessly over his forehead like a wet necktie, his soused vocal delivery suggesting a man clambering over slippery rocks. Mank’s brain works faster than his lips: Oldman shows his facial expressions reaching the end of a sentence before his mouth does.
Tom Burke, another British actor, is Welles, his square face soft like a sponge, his voice a sultry rumble. The role is no more than a cameo, and the men’s tussle for credit is consigned to a single stand-off. Mank dwells instead on how the pell-mell life of one boozy wit, and the corrupt co-mingling of politics and entertainment, fed into a film now routinely considered the greatest ever made.
We first glimpse the writer hobbling into the villa in the Mojave Desert where Welles has sent him to bash out the script. Intimations of mortality abound. Mank is in bed, his busted leg encased in plaster, a hospital handle-grip swinging above him like a noose from its gallows-like frame. An empty bottle drops from his hand, prefiguring the snow globe in the deathbed scene from Citizen Kane. “I’m washed up,” Mank complains. “Have been for years.” It is 1940. “I should have done something by now,” he says. He’s about to.
The screenplay is dictated to Rita (Lily Collins), the diligent secretary at his bedside: “Then, as it must to all men, death came to…” In lieu of completing that familiar line of narration (“… Charles Foster Kane”), Mank swats a fly that has alighted on his sheet. That’s precisely the effect he intends the script to have on the bully-boy media baron on whom the power-crazed Kane is based. “I know who it is,” Rita says with a note of admonishment. “Who it’s meant to be.”
William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance with an imperiousness that never precludes fragility, has the influence to yank politicians’ strings. His lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whose acting career Hearst bankrolls, overhears him “helping to pick the president’s cabinet like casting a movie”.
What complicates matters is that Mank has enjoyed the hospitality of Hearst, and is sweet on Davies in an avuncular sort of way. She has lashes you could ski off, eyes you could leap into, and in Seyfried’s joyful performance, she’s no dope either. “Since when does anyone care what I have to say?” she sighs, echoing Mank’s feelings about himself. His script blasts Hearst but it is Davies (the inspiration for Kane’s mocked mistress Susan Alexander) who gets caught in the crossfire. Not for nothing does her opening exchange with Mank occur between takes on a Western where she is tied to a stake (“Someone save me!”). He has a lit match in his hand. One slip and they could both go whoosh.
Fincher has mounted the movie like a Hollywood classic, from the jazzy, rat-a-tat score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to the intricately lit black-and-white cinematography by Eric Messerschmidt, who doffs his cap to Gregg Toland’s pioneering deep-focus compositions in Citizen Kane. Tiny white circles appear intermittently in the top right-hand corner, like the ones Brad Pitt helpfully pointed out on screen in Fincher’s Fight Club. These indicate upcoming reel changes, though Mank, shot digitally and financed by Netflix, has no reels that need changing. The viewer is the projectionist, remote control in hand.
New scenes are heralded with on-screen slug lines (“INT. MANKIEWICZ’S HOME. WEEKS EARLIER”) which underscore Fincher’s fidelity to the typed or written word. A producer dismisses Mank as “just a writer”, but words here can ruin or redeem reputations. Mank’s broken leg can even be blamed on one: his driving companion was distracted from the wheel while pondering the sign-off (“Always”) in a love letter.
It’s no small matter that the author of Mank is Jack Fincher, the director’s father, who died in 2003. He gets sole credit, a gesture that ratifies the film’s argument that screenwriting isn’t only about what’s on the page: at its finest, it facilitates conditions in which everyone can sparkle. I don’t know whether the script stipulated the box of Gold Dust washing powder that sits beside the sink in Mank’s villa, but there it is, bold as brass, hinting at the alchemy necessary to create a Citizen Kane. Or, for that matter, a Mank.
“Mank” is on Netflix from 4 December
dir: David Fincher
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump