No freshman film student should be forced to watch Citizen Kane.
I don’t mean this as some sort of clickbaity takedown of a beloved classic. On the contrary: Citizen Kane is probably even better than its reputation, and anyone remotely interested in movies should see it. But everyone should also be given a chance to enjoy it, and therein lies the problem. When you present a work to someone as The Best Whatever of All Time– especially when that person is a nineteen-year-old who thinks they’re hot shit, which, I assure you, every film school freshman does– you’re all but daring them to shrug with disinterest. What’s more, a big part of what makes Kane so special is the way Orson Welles effortlessly synthesized the most exciting developments from the first half century of cinema, which is somewhat lost when you’re forced to watch it three weeks after Workers Leaving the Factory. Ideally, Citizen Kane should be saved for a senior year culmination, or perhaps a retroactive requirement for graduates once they’ve settled down and hit their 30s. It’s too good to waste on those punks.
Of course, this is all a flight of fancy; rationally, I know that Citizen Kane will remain a rite of passage for generations of young cineastes to come. Still, the fact remains that it’s in need of a new means of introduction, one which contextualizes why it’s so good rather than present its greatness as a fact. I’m not sure that Mank, David Fincher’s long-gestating docudrama about the film’s creation, is quite that introduction– I can’t imagine what someone who hasn’t already seen Kane would make of it– but it achieves something that few Film History 101 textbooks do: it makes it feel alive.
Mank is not the story of Orson Welles, but rather of Kane’s screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Welles does appear, as played by Tom Burke, but he’s more of a looming figure in the periphery than a character, much in the same way Jesus appears in the old Biblical epics). Mankiewicz was part of a wave of celebrated wits from the New York literary and theatrical scene who traveled west in the early 1930s to make a quick buck writing screenplays for the early talkies. Even among this crowd, which included such luminaries as George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, and Dorothy Parker, Mank was a larger-than-life figure, urbane and entertaining enough to be accepted into Hollywood society and invited to all the best parties. Unfortunately, Mank was also self-destructive to the extreme, and by the end of the ‘30s he was all but unemployable due to his alcoholism, gambling addiction, and tendency to not know when to shut his mouth.
When we meet Mank (here played with full gusto by Gary Oldman), he’s in a particularly bad way, laid out and heavily bandaged following a high-speed desert car crash. But he’s also been offered the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to write the screenplay for the much-ballyhooed directorial debut of radio/stage wunderkind Welles. Wheeled out to a remote farmhouse with a stern nurse (Monika Grossman), a bright young transcriptionist (Lily Collins) and all alcohol under lock and key, Mank begins swirling ideas for a screenplay then titled American, based on the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. The subject is more than academic for Mank: through flashbacks, we learn that Mankiewicz was once a fixture at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, where he served as something of a court jester for Hearst (played sonorously by Charles Dance) and befriended his young mistress, the flapperish silent film comedienne Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, clearly having a ball). We also learn of Mank’s fall from grace from the studio system, which coincided with Hearst’s troubling collaboration with Louis B. Mayer to block a gubernatorial run by writer and activist Upton Sinclair (played in cameo by an actor so truly unexpected and baffling that I wouldn’t dare spoil it here). As the weeks tick by and Mank finds increasingly inventive means of dodging sobriety, Welles and his producers get increasingly nervous, and he’s visited by a procession of friends and well-wishers asking whether writing a character assassination of the most powerful man in the world is really the best idea.
The first thing one will notice about Mank is its look. To recreate the Hollywood of the 1930s, David Fincher has done his damnedest to create an actual film from the 1930s. This goes beyond simply shooting in black and white; the sets, camera angles, and even the acting styles consciously ape those of the early sound era (amusingly, Fincher even adds digital cigarette burns and faux reel changes every twenty minutes or so). This approach can be distancing at first, the ostentatious showiness preventing the characters from ever quite feeling like real people. But then, that’s true of Citizen Kane, too. To tell the elliptical story of Charles Foster Kane, Welles and DP Gregg Toland gleefully threw every cinematic trick yet invented into a blender, creating a dizzying, deliberately artificial heightened reality. This is the approach Fincher applies to the making of Kane itself, and once you get into the groove, the effect is intoxicating. You won’t be tricked into thinking what you’re watching is the real world, but it’s so much fun to watch that you likely won’t care.
The same could be said of Mank himself. Among film history geeks, Herman Mankiewicz has been elevated to something of a folk hero, particularly since the 1971 publication of Raising Kane, Pauline Kael’s controversial, revisionist telling of the film’s inception, which posits Mankiewicz as the one true author of the film’s screenplay (Mank is so clearly modeled after Kael’s piece, both in structure and incident, that I’m honestly surprised she doesn’t receive an adapted-from credit). Unlike similar great-man-of-Hollywood biopics, Fincher seems less interested in revealing the man behind the myth than translating the myth onto an even more exaggerated canvas. Oldman plays Mankiewicz somewhere between W.C. Fields, Hunter S. Thompson, and Shakespeare’s Puck, slurring and stumbling his way through life while also serving as an unlikely source of wisdom. There are moments of humanity, as in his surprisingly sweet friendship with Davies (described by his long-suffering wife as a “silly, platonic affair”), but by and large, the version of Mankiewicz on display is the tall-tale version– think Paul Bunyan, but with empty bottles instead of tree stumps.
This approach will be sure to chafe some purists of Hollywood history; Kael’s essay has long been disputed by most of the parties involved, and the film does kind of let Mankiewicz off the hook for his treatment of the Davies character in his script. (Throughout the film, Mank repeatedly insists “It’s not her!” This is more or less true– Davies was by all accounts a gifted comic actress, as opposed to the talentless soprano of Susan Alexander Kane– but the fact that Kane’s shadow is cast so much farther than anything Davies worked on in her lifetime has effectively tarnished her legacy even more than Hearst’s). Likewise, I’m not sure how much the film will mean to those not already steeped in cinematic lore; I can imagine less well-versed viewers scratching their heads at the weight placed on the death of Irving Thalberg. But like last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the sheer joy Fincher clearly takes in playing in this 1930s Hollywood sandbox is infectious. What Fincher does better than any textbook is bring to life the thrill of experimentation that makes Kane such a lasting monument. At two and a half hours, Mank is a long film, but it never feels weighted down by its heft. Rather, like Mank himself– drunk, bloated, and covered in bandages– the film’s wit and wry joie de vivre makes it feel surprisingly spritely. This is a dark story, about a drunken shell of a man navigating the politics of fake news at the height of the Great Depression, but it’s somehow also a joy to watch. And if it makes Citizen Kane for even one callow, snotty film student, then it will all be worth it.
dir. David Fincher
Streaming Friday, 12/4 on Netflix
Right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.