Film: Mank

Hollywood can’t resist making films about itself, but rarely are they executed with such moxie and vision as David Fincher’s Mank (2020), a remarkable technical achievement. It’s an ambitious project that might have turned out like yet another self-congratulatory love letter to the film industry, but it runs an even greater risk: by chronicling the creative story behind Citizen Kane, while also emulating its look and feel, it might have ended up a pale imitation. In the end, it deftly sidesteps these pitfalls, stirring plenty of critique in with its reverence for Hollywood yesteryear, and—more impressively—executing a near-perfect homage to the film that inspired it.

Mank is the story behind the writing of Citizen Kane, which is justly celebrated as one of the greatest films of all time, and also notoriously takes on the powerful businessman William Randolph Hearst, whose personality is savagely critiqued by the script. Therefore, Mank focuses on its author, Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, in yet another fully submerged performance). Witty, rakish, and talented, Mank is also an alcoholic at the tail end of his career. To write Citizen Kane, he’s sent into the desert by Orson Welles (Tom Burke); Welles hopes to isolate him from drink and distraction, and sets him up with scribe Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman) to look after him. As Mank crankily works to produce his script—subverting supervision whenever possible—he also copes with the meddling of distant Hollywood collaborators. Meanwhile, he reflects, often in conversation with Rita, on the events in his past that led him to set his sights on Hearst (Charles Dance), the powerful billionaire media mogul.

Viewers who enjoy the meta-exercise of watching films about films will find plenty to love in Mank, which celebrates a film well worth celebrating, even as it makes its own mark. Yes, it’s a love letter to Hollywood, devoting considerable resources—production values, cinematography, even idiosyncratic acting affectations—not just toward recreating the era it’s depicting, but the unique flavor of filmmaking that era engendered. This goes beyond simple black-and-white photography. Fincher, directing from a script written by his father Jack, brilliantly mimics Welles’ visual artistry, even going so far as to recreate the syncing burn marks on the “print” to conjure reel changes during scene breaks. The entire cast gamely recreates the peculiarities of onscreen, mid-twentieth-century American English; Oldman and Amanda Seyfried are particularly adept at this. The effect is uncanny, making Mank feel very much like a classic film you’ve never seen, even when you can’t help but be aware of how new it is. There’s loads of talent in the wider cast as well, including Collins, Charles Dance, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, and Tom Pelphrey.

Fortunately, there’s more than simple entertainment industry self-love on display. The script’s political undercurrents—as Mank turns his final, greatest script into a crusade that may well have been an act of career suicide—resonate eerily with the ugly unreality of modern media distortion. On this score, it might have done better to play up the oligarchical opposition of Hearst (and thereby take further advantage of Dance, who plays him well), an effective stand-in for the lopsided power differentials that persist to the present day. Even so, in its love for the world of storytelling it depicts, it also tackles the ways in which stories can be leveraged maliciously. This elevates it beyond just an indulgence in lore, making it very much a film of its own era. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but especially for viewers with an interest in film history, it’s a rich, enthralling tapestry, worth it for Oldman’s performance alone.

Scroll to Top