This movie is mostly about another movie — “Citizen Kane” — that many regard as the finest film ever. That earlier movie is mostly associated with Orson Welles, who starred, directed, produced and co-wrote it.
“Mank” is about the other writer, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman).
(I watched “Citizen Kane” again before seeing this new film. There is a very short plot summary here.)
The film opens as Mank, one leg in a huge cast after a car accident, is taken to a house in the Mojave Desert east of Los Angeles. He is there to recuperate and, under orders from Orson Welles, to produce a Kane screenplay in 90 days. Actually, 60 days.
Mank is a complex fellow — one of the writers who left New York for less lofty but higher-paying film assignments in Los Angeles. He’s good when he’s on point, but his alcoholism makes his work erratic. A California associate, John Houseman (Sam Troughton), has been assigned to bird-dog the writing effort.
Mank’s script will be about Charles Foster Kane, a rich young man who buys a newspaper, then many other newspapers and who aims for political glory, only to lose all that he values and then die, old and alone in a massive pleasure dome, ala Kubla Khan of the Samuel Tayler Coleridge poem.
“Citizen Kane” resembles a then-living American, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), founder of a newspaper empire who has his own “pleasure dome,” San Simeon, high above the California coastline. Hearst has taken an interest in filmmaking to promote the career of his blonde mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried.) Hearst died 10 years after “Citizen Kane” was released and probably did not appreciate the characterization. Marion Davies was said to resent her portrayal.
Mank’s moments are intercut with scenes from his earlier experiences in California. The film is made in black and white, and the cut-in scenes are rendered, script-style, like this: “INT: San Simeon — night”
On Mank’s first visit to San Simeon, he is told, “George Bernard Shaw was right — it’s what God might have built if he had the money.” In that scene, Hearst establishes himself as tight-lipped and peremptory, but Davies and Mank begin to form a friendship.
Mank also visits the MGM offices, where he watches a “writers’ room” working on a script and then sees chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) tell an all-hands gathering that the studio must cut all wages by 50 percent until the new president, FDR, reopens Depression-closed banks.
He also talks with other writers when the Writers Guild (like other labor unions) are being formed. They are knowledgeable about the looming Nazi threat and sympathetic to a more collective government, with Mank saying, “Socialism is where everybody shares the wealth, and Communism is where everybody shares the poverty.”
During that period, California was a business-oriented Republican stronghold. But one renegade named Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) had become a problem. Sinclair, the muckraking journalist and socialist, registered Democrat and ran in 1934 for the office of California governor.
Mank observes the film industry’s apparently staged campaign of faked stories from everyday voters favoring the Republican candidate, who did in fact win the election.
The movie is directed by David Fincher — “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl,” “Fight Club”– and is done well. The acting is excellent, but the script drops literary references like crazy, apparently to establish Mank’s intellectual erudition. (He calls Hearst “Cervantes” and Louis Mayer “Sancho,” not flatteringly; and he likens Davies repeatedly to “Dulcinea,” in references, duh, to Don Quixote. There are many others.)
Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is almost entirely absent. He and Mank talk over the phone and then argue at the end over whether Mank will get any credit for the screenplay. On the other hand, Welles’ name has been associated almost exclusively with the original film since its release in 1941.
Early in this movie, Mank is advised to “Tell the story you know.”
In fact, the script for this film about a screenwriter was written by the director’s late father, Jack Fincher, a screenwriter himself.
This happens again and again in all forms of art.
How many self-portraits do we have of famous painters? Photographer Cindy Sherman has made a career of photographing herself in different costumes and roles.
Televisions shows about people who make television shows started (I think) with “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and continued to “30 Rock.”
“Chorus Line” and “Chicago” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are musicals are about musical plays.
Thomas Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” is just one of many novels by and about novelists.
Readers with other examples are invited to share them in comments.