Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2020. Netflix. Screenplay by Jack Fincher. Cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt. Produced by Cean Chaffin, Eric Roth, Douglas Urbanski. Music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Production Design by Donald Graham Burt. Costume Design by Trish Summerville. Film Editing by Kirk Baxter. Boston Film Critics 2020. National Society of Film Critics Awards 2020. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2020.
The prospect of yet another film, documentary or book looking into the shenanigans behind the making of Citizen Kane, known as the Greatest Film Of All Time and little else for decades, is not a particularly welcome one, it has been examined meticulously scores of times, including an Oscar-nominated documentary (The Battle Over Citizen Kane by Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein) and an Emmy-winning television movie (RKO 281 by Benjamin Ross), plus has been the motivation for no end of printed pages in which it is celebrated (or sometimes questioned) for its position at the centre where most film appreciation and criticism meet. Kane is also, for many commentators, an emblem of the downside of the studio system (crushing that poor, unlucky artiste Orson Welles) and a marker of the moment that we all realized the power that films have to rankle people not just within but also outside of movie theatres (by pissing off the people upon whom it was reportedly based, in this case, but also proving how Hollywood movies could later be used effectively as war propaganda). In short, if you’re the type of person who says you watch “films” and not “movies”, Citizen Kane is your origin story and there’s nothing about it you don’t already know. Rest easy, then, for while David Fincher’s biopic about the screenwriter of Welles’ masterpiece is neither flawless nor overly exciting, it ventures into enough previously underexplored territory and gives us a robust and curious alternative to the usual tale of RKO/Welles vs William Randolph Hearst.
Gary Oldman‘s performance as Herman Mankiewicz is closer to his villainous camp in movies like The Fifth Element and Air Force One than any of his best subtle (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) or exuberant (Sid & Nancy) work, but he at least seems to be having a great time embodying the author’s joyful but self-destructive indulgence. Beginning to write for films in the late twenties, Mankiewicz hit his stride in the thirties mainly for his particularly free-spirited but intelligent humour shown off best in his collaborations with the Marx Brothers. At the beginning of this film, it’s 1940 and he’s already washed up, his best writing days behind him and his worst drinking days having taken their toll. He has been asked to ghost-write a script for wunderkind Welles for his feature directorial debut, a tale of a newspaper man turned powerful tycoon, and “Mank” is promised a handsome fee if he agrees to write the whole thing and take no credit for the finished product. Injured in a car accident and with his half his body now in a cast, he holes up in a remote desert shack with a nurse (Monika Gossmann) and a secretary (a wonderfully spry Lily Collins) and wears himself out scribbling and dictating, periodically flashing back to the previous decade to fill us in on why Hearst (played with his usual growling perfection by Charles Dance) was his primary inspiration for the film’s main character. The details are for you to explore, but the short end of it has to do with a gubernatorial election between capitalist Frank Merriam and socialist author Upton Sinclair (whose novel Oil would later be turned into the film There Will Be Blood) and the anxiety it caused not only in moneybags Hearst but in MGM’s studio head Louis B. Mayer (played by a marvelous Arliss Howard), who is terrified of what the dismantling of private enterprise will do to the movie business. Mankiewicz plays the fool at Heart’s parties, befriending a superb Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies (probably the first three-dimensional portrayal of the actress that feels accurate, though Melanie Griffith managed a few genuine moments in the role) and overindulging himself at the dinner table until his involvement in a political ad campaign opens his eyes to far more corruption than even his cynical world view had previously known; if he was a Victorian woman, he’d die of a broken heart, but instead, he is compelled to destroy his own career. In the present, he continues to write away despite his health deteriorating and Welles (imitated perfectly by The Souvenir‘s Tom Burke) constantly pestering him, his development on both the project and his own recovery connected to his figuring out if he is able to put the past to rest.
The fact that this story has puzzle pieces to assemble that at least some of us can’t see coming is a delightful surprise, perhaps some of us who have seen Kane too many times might be inspired to watch it again with the knowledge we have learned here. Or, perhaps, we know the story of money corrupting politics in American history and this movie is only filling in the details of a pretty familiar tale, and perhaps that means it doesn’t quite need all 131 of its minutes to tell it. It has verve and a genuine good nature, it’s never boring even at its least original, but it doesn’t look as good as it thinks it does: the razor-sharp digital black and white photography is surprisingly ugly, featuring too many bright, overexposed light sources that wash out the rich blacks and silvers in the remainder of the screen, and the modern electronic film stock clashes poorly with such adorable retro inclusions as cigarette burns in the corner of the screen to pretend that we’re changing reels. It’s a shame that the supporting characters (who also include a marvelous Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s wife “Poor Sarah”) far outshine the lead, particularly considering that the women are doing superb work in roles that have little to do with the machinery of the plot but are, as is far too often the case, there to represent the kind of aspirational morality that those complicated, rascally men can never manage (and as this is not The Irishman, that is not as forgivable this time around). We only get a brief glimpse of Mank’s career at its height (the card playing and nearly naked secretary in his office tells us enough, I suppose), but if you have an interest in this period of Hollywood (and if you were abused by Ryan Murphy’s version of it on his series Hollywood), you’ll find enough to appreciate here to make it worth your while.