By Andrew Tracy

“I am very happy to accept this award in the spirit in which the screenplay was written—which is to say, in the absence of Orson Welles,” snarks Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz in the recreated newsreel that caps off Mank, as he receives the Best Screenplay Oscar he acrimoniously shared with Welles for Citizen Kane (1941). It’s hardly necessary to point out that, while Welles himself (as capably impersonated by English actor Tom Burke) is only an intermittent physical presence in David Fincher’s film (which he directed from a decades-old script by his late father Jack Fincher), the entire enterprise exists under his shadow. Welles aficionado Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote of “how mythical and ideological a creature Welles remains [as a cultural figure], a site for the acting out of various fantasies.” Indeed, for a filmmaker who spent the majority of his career being marginalized in one way or another, Welles now exerts a gravitational pull (no fat jokes intended) that draws all adjacent subjects into his orbit. 

The last time Welles was so consciously consigned to the sidelines was in Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock (2000), in which Angus Macfadyen’s bizarrely off-brand performance rendered him a sodden ninny who is largely a witness to the legendary premiere of communist composer Marc Blitzstein’s radical opera rather than its impresario. While Robbins’ depiction of Welles is virtually worthless as a representation of the historical man, it’s nonetheless understandable in the context of the writer-director’s desire to salute a vibrant, multifaceted left-wing tradition in America—one that has been viciously repudiated, if not entirely effaced, by the neoliberal regime of the last half-century—that could easily be reduced to the background within the Great Man mythology of a grandiose figure like Welles. On the other side of the political coin, one could even argue that, in the realm of culture at least, Kane’s model and target William Randolph Hearst himself is now less “real” than the fictive Charles Foster Kane, a footnote to Welles’ film rather than an all-too-real and fearsomely armed nemesis. 

If the latter is a case of a powerful imaginative creation subsuming the reality that inspired it, Fincher’s Mank conversely makes the far too common and all too lazy error of equating the “look” of old movies (however poorly imitated) with the actual reality of the period in which they were made. The perpetually soft, greyscale black-and-white cinematography, italicized deployment of devices like rear projection and Slavko Vorkapich-style montage, and orchestral score (by frequent Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) performed entirely on period-specific instruments, is a fetishism bereft of the intense focus and attention to detail that real fetishism feeds off of. 

The film’s aesthetic texture not only makes a distorted claim about how movies looked Back Then, but also enrols Kane itself (not an actual frame of which is glimpsed in the film) into this distortion. It’s no surprise that Mank ends with the industry validation of Kane’s Oscar win, given the ideological narrative that has rewritten Kane as the triumphant culmination of classical Hollywood cinema rather than a singular aberration within it. What is more troubling is that a film that consciously set out to “break the rules” is, by way of Fincher’s visual strategy, implicitly assimilated into an at best reductive conception of the Hollywood cinema of its era, and of the possibilities that artists could find and, occasionally, exploit within it.

It is, of course, impossible to discuss Mank without addressing its central contention about Kane’s authorship, not least because its entire narrative is framed by the 12-week period in 1940 in which Mankiewicz—recovering from a car crash, and striving not to recover from a lifetime of outrageous alcohol abuse—hashed out the first draft of the screenplay during an enforced convalescence in the rural California town of Victorville. Policed by Welles’ partner-turned-employee John Houseman (Sam Troughton), straight-laced English secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and the orotundly chummy yet unmistakably commanding tones of Welles in sporadic telephone check-ins, Mankiewicz conspires to smuggle in some 80-proof “support devices” to his dry dwelling as he dictates the story of what was first titled American. Meanwhile, Kane-aping flashbacks offer a largely chronological account of the sharp-tongued and self-destructive Mankiewicz’s simultaneous falls from grace at MGM, where he had once been one of the industry’s top screenwriters, and from the inner circle of Hearst, who had made him a court favourite at San Simeon due to his acidulous wit and amusingly incurable contrariness. 

To dispense with the Mankiewicz-vs.-Welles “controversy” up front, Robert Carringer’s 1978 article “The Scripts of Citizen Kane” has long been recognized as the authoritative refutation of Pauline Kael’s (in)famous argument, in her 1971 essay “Raising Kane,” that Mankiewicz was the sole author of the Kane screenplay and was denied his due credit by the ruthlessly self-promoting Welles. Responding on wellesnet.com to a leaked draft of Jack Fincher’s original 1994 script of Mank, which skewed strongly Kaelite in its assessment of Kane’s creation, Welles biographer Joseph McBride cites both Carringer and Mankiewicz biographer Richard Meryman in asserting that Welles and Mankiewicz spent five weeks in preliminary script discussions before the latter decamped for Victorville; that Welles was working concurrently on Mankiewicz’s draft pages, which were delivered to him regularly during the Victorville period, and not “vivisecting” a finished script post-facto (as per one of Oldman/Mankiewicz’s many barbed comments about his “wunderkind” collaborator); and that Carringer’s “extensive study of seven script drafts [has proven] that Welles deserves his co-writing credit for the extensive work he [did] in reshaping and helping conceive the script in the form that went before the cameras.”    

Although Finch the Younger’s Mank has evidently toned down the anti-Welles slant of the original script, its rehashing of the discredited Mank-teur version of events clouds the issue that the film is primarily concerned with—namely, the consolidation and exercise of power by the wealthy. One must not forget that Kael’s marginalizing of Welles in “Raising Kane,” just like Robbins’ in Cradle Will Rock, was part of a larger ideological agenda, though an inverted one to Robbins’. For Kael, Kane was a studio picture first and last, a product of an industrial tradition rather than an extraordinary instance of an artist who was, briefly, able to utilize the resources of that industry. As a professionally cynical member of the ’30s writers’-room model, a card-carrying Eastern intellectual disdainfully slumming it as a hired Hollywood hand, Mankiewicz was thus a perfect avatar for Kael’s low regard for artistic “pretensions” and affirmation of the studio over what would now be (atrociously) referred to as “creatives.”

While Mank is certainly not a hymn to the “genius of the system” in its cold anger at the capitalist tyranny of the studios, it is ultimately indiscriminate in where it locates that tyranny, as well as glossing over Mankiewicz’s own complex relationship with it during his pre-Kane heyday. In this telling, Oldman’s Mankiewicz is something of a Thomas Becket figure, with Hearst (Charles Dance), Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) as a tripartite Henry II: a dissolute cynic and courtier to the powerful who is ultimately no longer able to stomach their abuses of that power. (In Mankiewicz’s case quite literally, as he puts a period on his drunken dinner-table diatribe against Hearst by vomiting up his repast on the floor.) Although Mankiewicz initially adopts a cavalier air towards his employers’ exploitative practices—commenting to his recently arrived brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), after witnessing Mayer’s revolting “plea” to MGM employees to accept a 50% wage cut during the government’s temporary closure of the banks in March 1933, that this was “not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen”—his shell of self-sustaining cynicism is gradually eroded as his corporate masters become ever more open in their ruthlessness, culminating in the outright fabrication of “newsreels” designed to sink progressive icon Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial run. 

Yet even as Mankiewicz awakens to the “huge responsibility” of media workers such as himself towards those “people sitting in the dark, willingly checking their disbelief at the door,” his iconoclasm prevents him from truly following through on that newfound sense of commitment. When Brother Joe attempts to convince him to join the newly founded Screen Writers Guild, Mankiewicz scoffs at the idea of comparatively well-paid writers passing themselves off as labourers, and anachronistically trots out Groucho Marx’s late-’40s line about not wishing to belong to any club that would have him as a member. In actuality, Mankiewicz did indeed join such a club: the short-lived Screen Playwrights, which was founded by conservative breakaways from the SWG (with the more or less open support and collusion of the studios) as a management-friendly union that catered to those higher-earning writers, like Mankiewicz, who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo with their studio overlords. 

Mankiewicz biographer Sydney Stern implies that this decision had more to do with his subject’s innate contrariness than any genuine right-wing conviction, but the fact remains that Mankiewicz’s name helped give credibility to a ploy that was intended to—and, at the outset, almost did—kill off an attempt to create a real, autonomous voice for employees. And even as he “genuinely sympathized with workers,” according to Stern, and disdained to exercise power himself—repeatedly getting himself demoted from his intermittent promotions to producer through acts of “creative self-sabotage”—he remained fascinated by those who did. No matter that the far more transparent Hearst figure in the initial draft of Kane was charged with Mankiewicz’s bitterness and spite at being exiled from the magnate’s court, he also evidently retained an awe of Hearst’s wealth-granted authority. In a letter quoted by Kael in which Mankiewicz describes a conversation with Welles, the author avers that, “With the fair-mindedness that I have always recognized as my outstanding trait, I said to Orson that…Mr. Hearst was, in many ways, a great man”—to which Welles purportedly replied that “He was, and is, [a] horse’s ass, no more nor less, who has been wrong, without exception, on everything he’s ever touched.” 

The habitual veneer of irony aside, there is a convincing air of the genuine here in Mankiewicz’s affirmation of Hearst’s “greatness”—such that Rosenbaum has identified one of the screenwriter’s abiding contributions to the Kane script as the way in which the film “worships raw power in the process of condemning it.” Fincher’s Mank, thankfully, has no such agenda. If the film does obscure the extent of Mankiewicz’s entanglement with and obeisance to Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg, it also paints all three of these men as either initially or ultimately repellent. This is not only for their respective personal characteristics, but also for their function as unusually influential nodes in a far-reaching system of exploitation, manipulation, and control: as Mankiewicz observes during a tipsy night-time stroll through the grounds of San Simeon with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Mayer’s warped, patriarchal overlordship of the studio that bears his name belies the fact that he doesn’t own it, and is in fact the obedient servant of the East Coast financial interests that do. 

Where the film’s otherwise pointed critique becomes muddled, however, is when it enlists Welles as the same kind of prick against which its Mankiewicz is kicking. McBride’s charge that the original script of Mank portrays Welles as “a shadowy, menacing figure…mostly heard as a voice[,] rarely seen, like a radio villain,” is largely borne out by the finished film as well. Materializing early on as a black-robed apparition hovering above the convalescing Mankiewicz’s hospital bed, Mank’s Welles is another agent of the system: a draconian enforcer of deadlines, a destroyer of artistic integrity (“A form of creative vivisection: vital organs are exposed, nothing is learned, the patient dies on the table,” Mankiewicz acidly remarks of Welles’ cuts to the Kane script), and, ultimately, a thief who tries to deny Mankiewicz credit on what, to all appearances, is the latter’s creation. “Who is producing this picture? Directing it? Starring in it?!!” hisses the towering Welles (in a subtle but marked low-angle shot) during the pair’s climactic confrontation, before picking up a chair and smashing it against the fireplace.

While Fincher fils has thankfully removed the smugly vindictive remark Welles proceeds to make in the original script—“When I am finished with Kane no one outside this industry will ever remember you had anything to do with it”—the perspective that birthed such a line in the first place still permeates the film made from it. One need not doubt Mankiewicz’s invaluable contribution to Citizen Kane to contend that the passage from page to screen entailed a creative transformation of the written source rather than a mere transcription, and one need not believe Welles a saint to consider the film’s ideologically motivated vilification of him unearned and unjust. The enemies—of artists, of workers, of a fair society and of basic human justice—that Mank condemns were Welles’ enemies too. While Mankiewicz, naturally, gets the last word in the film with his sardonic Oscar acceptance, what immediately precedes this is more germane to the point Mank is trying to make: an archival radio interview with Welles while he was in Brazil shooting It’s All True, which, the film fails to mention, was soon thereafter murdered in mid-production by the same studio regime that was also in the process of irreparably mutilating The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Given the frightening ease with which so much of his work could be buried, we can at least be thankful that the ongoing cultural battles over Welles, which Mank disingenuously contributes to, help keep him alive.

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