The clever lies of David Fincher's Mank
In Orson Welles' final major feature, F for Fake, the director outs himself as a fabulist. "What we professional liars hope to serve is truth," he explains in his defense, an echo of the famous Picasso quote about art.
But it is Welles' first major feature from three decades earlier, Citizen Kane, that is the primary concern of David Fincher's Mank, out Friday on Netflix. Though billed as a biopic about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the self-proclaimed "washed up" drunk who split the screenwriting credit with Welles on Kane, Mank is far cleverer — and more deceitful — than it initially lets on. Fincher undoubtedly would count himself among Welles' professional liars because Mank, more than it has any loyalty to accuracy, functions as Fincher's reminder of the responsibility of the movies, and the funny way moving images have of superseding the truth.
Much as a 24-year-old Welles was once given "absolute creative autonomy" by RKO Pictures to make "any movie, about any subject," Mank arose from Netflix asking Fincher, "Do you have anything that you've always wanted to make?" Though not a writer himself, Fincher turned to a script written 30 years earlier by his father, Jack, who died in 2003. The focus: Mankiewicz's effort to write Citizen Kane, a movie considered by many to be one of the (if not the) greatest films ever made.
Although that is perhaps the first deception of Mank. What is certain is that the real Mankiewicz was hired, effectively, as a ghostwriter before arguing for credit for Citizen Kane, leading to a bitter fight with Welles; the pair ultimately shared the 1941 Academy Award for screenwriting, the only award Kane got. Film critic Pauline Kael later argued in a 50,000-word essay in The New Yorker that Mankiewicz was the primary architect of the screenplay: "Mrs. Alexander, who took the dictation from Mankiewicz, from the first paragraph to the last ... says that Welles didn't write (or dictate) one line of the shooting script of Citizen Kane," she wrote. But then Robert Carringer, in his 1985 book The Making of Citizen Kane, appeared to debunk Kael's essay, concluding from a study of the seven drafts of the movie still available in the RKO archives that "the full evidence reveals that Welles' contribution to the Citizen Kane script was not only substantial but definitive." While Welles' significant influence on the script is mostly agreed upon now, in Mank "all sorts of facts are shuffled to diminish other peoples' contributions to Citizen Kane," as Slate writes in its fact-check of the film.
But Mank isn't a mere project of revisionism. Beyond the initial dubious conceit, there are a number of other oddities that would otherwise seem sloppy from a perfectionist like Fincher. Rather, they wink at the movie's artifice: Gary Oldman, for example, is a 62-year-old actor playing a 30- to 40-something-year-old Mankiewicz. And while marketed as a pastiche of classic Hollywood, Fincher shoots in a wide — rather than period-appropriate square — aspect ratio, despite the fact that "the wide-gauge celluloid [was] not introduced to audiences until 1953, the year this film's title subject died at age 55," RogerEbert.com observes. Mank even has fake reel-change markers for projectionists, down to their accompanying pop, though the film was shot digitally and streams on Netflix — further drawing attention to the question of authenticity. Other moments, like a who's who visit to an MGM writers room and an unverifiable tale of Mankiewicz rescuing a village of 100 Jews from the Nazis, are too heightened to ever be fully believable.
What of it? It's a fiction film, not a documentary! But Fincher certainly intends to show the movie's strings. For even more than Mank is about its protagonist racing to meet his deadline, it is a cynical portrait of the way the Hollywood elite weaponized movies to shape public opinion by choosing to make some films and rejecting others, or disseminating scripted newsreels to dismantle political threats in what was functionally the predecessor to fake news. And while Mankiewicz is disgusted by the corruption he sees, he ultimately wields the power of the movies in the same way, with the Citizen Kane script his act of revenge against his dinner friend William Randolph Hearst — who, as is embarrassingly obvious to everyone, is the inspiration for the lonely megalomaniac of the title. In real life, Citizen Kane was so successful at shaping popular opinion about the newspaper magnate that it actually ruined the reputation of Hearst's partner, Marion Davies (played in Mank by a luminous Amanda Seyfried), painting her as a talentless gold digger.
Mank adds another layer with its own ungenerous portrait of Welles, and sympathetic one of Mankiewicz. For the many viewers who watch it and don't care to Google the complicated backstory of the battle for screen credit over Citizen Kane, it might even serve as the only authority.
Mank himself, though, cautions against trusting that you've seen the whole picture. "You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours," he says. "All you can hope is to leave the impression of one." The you in the sentence hangs as a question: Who are the professional liars leaving an impression of whom? Fincher, of Mankiewicz and Welles? Welles, of Hearst and Davies? Netflix, in choosing to greenlight the movie at all? Or all of the dizzying above — because that's the real magic of the movies?