In 1940, at the tender age of 24, Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures with a contract benefitting his formidable storytelling talents. He was given absolute creative autonomy, would suffer no oversight, and could make any movie, about any subject, with any collaborator he wished …
It’s the freedom, ambition, and foreshadowing of this opening quote in MANK that almost immediately establishes it as a film that understands its potential.
It is shot entirely in black-and-white.
It features scenes of extended dialogue.
It even takes advantage of its premise by transcribing scene headers directly from the screenplay onto the screen.
It understands the peculiar nature of which its subject matter was derived and makes it clear from the beginning that it holds the responsibility of capturing that peculiarity in any way it can.
The eternal superiority and success of Citizen Kane has, just like any film, an origin story. The greatest films are usually the hardest to produce, and MANK shows that this story is no exception.
The film chronicles Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he battles through his progressive alcoholism while trying to finish writing Citizen Kane in 1940. With the Golden Age of Hollywood on the rise, Mank emphasizes the importance of creating a story that is about something and that says something. Through pushback and calculated risk, Mank writes a story that takes jabs at a particular wealthy figure in society while tying in personal inspirations and a “full circle” snapshot of a man’s life.
Historically speaking, Citizen Kane would become and continues to remain considered the best film of all time, and the mythology surrounding the film has always favored the “boy genius” Orson Welles as solely responsible for the magnum opus.
The mission of director David Fincher and MANK is to dispel that particular myth.
First and foremost, Gary Oldman shines in ominous greyscale as the titular character. Often lethargic and in a drunken state, Mank’s impeded but persistent genius is captured perfectly by Oldman, who uses an intentional drawl and blank facial expressions to showcase the odd persona of a revolutionary screenwriter. He delivers each line with wit so convincing that one questions if Oldman was there himself when the events occurred. Unstable as he walks and uneven as he talks, Mank’s spirit is exuded in such a way that contrasts from his mild-mannered on-screen counterparts. Through a final monologue of intoxicated imagination, Mank’s storytelling brilliance competes against his unruly behavior. Of course, this nods to the inevitable underscoring of his role in the conception of the screenplay, as the primary goal of MANK is to bring attention to an ignored component in a pop culture staple.
To truly understand the genius of the film as a whole, however, one must be well aware of the film that came before it, paving the way for its theatrics and tricks to become acceptable in the world of Hollywood.
A lover of Citizen Kane will spend all 131 minutes of MANK gushing over each and every reference made to the former. From architectural allusions, to the fading in and out between scenes, to the same reliance on flashbacks, to the ever-present importance of a newsreel, fans can actually watch the film they love so dearly come to life in a movie that is just as artistically crafted. Beautiful shots and angles make the film an engrossing experience. Additionally, the film provides a considerable amount of old-fashioned charm through detailed costume choices and a lively, jazz-influenced musical score. The viewer feels constantly roped in with the action, as dialogue carries along the waves of the background music and characters effortlessly bounce from interaction to interaction without ever missing a beat.
Perhaps the most significant trope in MANK inspired by the original film is an extreme low angle early on. When shooting Citizen Kane‘s post-election results scene, Orson Welles wanted such a low angle that the characters in the room would look mighty and god-like. Even after laying on the floor, the director insisted that it just wasn’t low enough. He ended up taking an axe, chopping a hole in the floor, and shooting the scene from underground. Literally.
MANK recognizes the power of this film technique and replicates it nearly exactly, but still in its own way. In an early bathroom scene where Charles Lederer encounters Mank’s brother, Joe, the camera is nearly below the ground, looking up at the men as Joe awkwardly exits the stall and they proceed to talk. While Citizen Kane fascinated viewers in the 40s, MANK takes a grand swing at getting a similar reaction in the following century.
They proceed to prove that, even if not entirely successful, it is definitely possible.
MANK is a film that fully realizes the standards to which they are expected to live up to. Still, it manages to poke fun at some of Citizen Kane‘s long debated flaws. For example, after finishing the first draft of the script, Mank is criticized for his scattered storytelling that hops between flashbacks and present day occurrences. This kind of storytelling is something also utilized in MANK itself. The film hops between Mank’s efforts to finish the screenplay in 1940, while going back in time to show the events and circumstances that led to Mank taking such a route in his story. If the viewer has seen Citizen Kane and enjoys the back-and-forth nature of the plot, then this similarity between the films’ natures is one to be celebrated. If the viewer finds themselves on the opposite end of that spectrum, they could end up just as confused and frustrated as some audiences were back in the 20th century.
At times, the film can get lost in its strong efforts to stay polished and peculiar. Several conversations carry on to such lengths that the topic at hand becomes lost in the formalities. Most of the characters have similar vocal tones and appearances, and soon a collection of colorful characters regress into room of copy-and-paste, well dressed men.
Nonetheless, in these conversations lie some of the film’s most relevant themes. The film puts much emphasis on the fact that many people around Mank in 1940 were not necessarily supportive of the story’s not-so-subtle commentary on William Randolph Hearst, a bitter yellow journalist and wealthy social leader whom the fictional Charles Foster Kane is based upon. As Citizen Kane did back in 1941, MANK points out the greedy intentions of some public figures and how their motives do not always have the general public’s interest at heart. Whether through manipulating public opinion on politics or exiling a group of people from those with a higher socioeconomic status, it is without a doubt that the timing of MANK‘s release could not be more critical.
The film is a telling commentary on the current state of our country, particularly in a political sense. With two sides clearly against each other, there are varying views on the morals and principles the other side stands on. The most transparent line in the whole film just might be when Mank says, “America’s unemployed will invade the Golden State,” a statement meant mockingly as he ponders on the political views of those in California. While calling out xenophobia and class privilege, MANK makes sharp digs at the foundation of many American values while allowing the audience to realize these very problems are not exclusive to the 1940s, but still exist today.
Further, just as it was used to paint Charles Foster Kane as a much better man than he was in Citizen Kane, a newsreel is used to show early voters and their somewhat shallow political opinions in MANK. It becomes clear through the newsreel that a certain group of people support one candidate, while another group supports the opposition. The reasoning behind their opinions are almost parallel to modern language, such as, “I believe that Mr. Merriam will support all the foundations and principles that this country has stood for in the past 150 years.” Viewers with a keen sense of reality and an eye for a film’s bigger picture will be able to draw remarkable comparisons and theories regarding some of MANK‘s bigger messages.
Though Citizen Kane is a tough act to be critically associated with, MANK is just as unconventional, smart, and witty to perhaps be considered a classic in its own right some day.
MANK is rated R.
Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl