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The image looks through a round window into a room where a film is being shot.
Behind the scenes of shooting Mank.
Courtesy of IMDb

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The tangled history behind David Fincher’s Mank — and its link to Citizen Kane — explained

The new Netflix movie is about Hollywood politics and critical arguments that span decades.

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Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Midway through Mank, Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is explaining his screenplay — tentatively titled American— to producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Houseman has been tasked with keeping the legendarily alcoholic writer on schedule, and though he likes what he’s read, he finds Mankiewicz’s script “a bit of a jumble, a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans,” he says. “The story is so scattered, I’m afraid one will need a road map.”

“The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll,” Mankiewicz replies. “Not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit. You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression.”

Mankiewicz — “Mank” is his nickname — is explaining his elliptical script, which in 1941 would be released as Citizen Kane, the seminal film on which he officially shares the screenwriting credit with Citizen Kane director, producer, and star Orson Welles.

And yet his cinnamon roll analogy is a useful way to describe Mank, which itself is a bit of a puzzle. On the one hand, the movie is plenty watchable even without much knowledge of the real-life characters and historical story it’s telling; Mank is about a former journalist and playwright who struck gold in Hollywood — like many writers of his era — only to be tossed out by the industry and go on to strike back the best way he can. Directed by David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network) from a screenplay written by his father Jack Fincher, it’s fast, talky, and shot in black and white with old-timey flourishes, and its plot is simple enough to follow even though the film is not very interested in explaining itself.

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank.

But on the other hand, it’s possible — even likely — to get to the end of Mank and wonder, “What was that all about?” The film is dense with references to multiple real-life feuds, long-running critical arguments, and, perhaps most of all, the political allegiances and alliances that were so much a part of Hollywood’s first several decades. It’s really a movie about a writer who comes to realize the business he’s in is being twisted by the powerful, toward terrible ends. And he decides to take revenge by making a film about the powerful media magnate William Randolph Hearst, whom he once saw as his friend.

So to unroll the cinnamon bun of Mank — especially if you’ve found yourself confused as to why the film even exists — it’s worth understanding everything that’s going on beneath it.

The genesis of Mank is in a film critic feud from the 1960s and ’70s

The first layer of this movie is a decades-long argument over who is actually responsible for the masterpiece that is Citizen Kane. The comprehensive history of this quarrel — and the question of why anyone cares about it — has filled books and occupied historians, critics, and cinephiles to a degree that can seem baffling from the outside.

A quick sketch requires turning to the late Pauline Kael, one of the foremost American film critics, and the year 1971.

At that time, Kael was the film critic for the New Yorker, and one of the most prominent critics in the field. For more than a decade, she had been clashing with the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris over the rightness of the auteur theory, a way of thinking about films developed by French critics in the late 1940s. In brief, the theory proposes that films ought to be seen as a reflection, primarily, of the director’s vision, and that it’s both possible and useful to meaningfully consider a consistency of style or thematic content across one director’s body of work.

For some critics, this concept was especially helpful in finding new ways to talk about American films. In its early decades, Hollywood operated like a series of little factories. Studios kept a bevy of directors, writers, producers, actors, and many others on their payroll under exclusive contracts. Today, it’s common for directors to have their films distributed by a range of different studios, and for actors to work on a variety of films — even in the same year — that are bankrolled by different studios. Or a studio might not even be involved; many modern productions operate independently of the six major studios that make up the Motion Picture Association: Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and, as of 2019, Netflix, the studio that produced Mank.

But until the middle of the 20th century, a film was often billed to the public as an “MGM picture” or a “Paramount picture,” starring players under contract with that studio; in those days, the names of the director and writer were usually of little importance. The emergence of the auteur theory gave critics a handle to grab onto when talking about, for instance, the films of Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock: They were the work of a director with a singular vision, even if their studios preferred not to think of them that way.

Alfred Hitchcock poses a frame shot with his hands.
Tony Evans/Timelapse Library Ltd. via Getty Images

Sarris is the American critic most responsible for importing the auteur theory to the US. And Kael, without exaggeration, hated the idea of it. She saw it as a lot of bunk, reductive in a way that could be exploited to downgrade great movies and praise bad ones, and she attacked Sarris ferociously in her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares,” which had the effect of raising the auteur theory’s profile as well as Sarris’s.

Fights over the rightness or wrongness of the auteur theory have continued to erupt ever since. These days, they happen most often on Twitter; in 2020, everyone seems to have a different opinion about what the auteur theory even is and what it is meant to do. But in the 1960s, Sarris’s auteur-driven approach to criticism and Kael’s rejection of that approach fueled the hottest debate among critics and cinephiles. (If you ask me, both Sarris and Kael were a little right and a little wrong, but then, that’s the fun of being a critic.)

So that’s what was swirling in the air back in 1971 when Kael was asked to write the foreword to a published version of the Citizen Kane shooting script, timed to its 30-year anniversary. She wrote 50,000 words — the equivalent of a short novel — that were published in two parts in the New Yorker before the book came out. The essay, which has been reprinted in collections of Kael’s work, was titled “Raising Kane” — a cheeky reference to the idiom “raising Cain,” which means to cause a ruckus or raise hell. Kael knew what she was doing.

Film critic Pauline Kael on August 9, 1973.
Toronto Star via Getty Images

In “Raising Kane,” Kael proposed, in a long-winded and somewhat factually inaccurate but highly readable fashion, that Mankiewicz’s screenplay was the real reason that Citizen Kane was great — and not, as an auteur-theory purist might believe, mostly the byproduct of Orson Welles’s brilliance. She didn’t dispute that star, producer, and director Welles was a huge part of what made the film work, or that Welles himself was a genius. But at its core, she said, Citizen Kane’s true auteur was a writer. Kael’s argument was that Mankiewicz’s screenplay — for which she strongly suggested Welles took far too much credit — is what makes the whole thing sing.

Kael built this argument by recounting the entire history of the making of the film, pointing out the commonalities between Citizen Kane and other films that Mankiewicz wrote, tracing Welles’s arrival in Hollywood, and weaving in many other related matters. But her goal in the whole endeavor was to get in another jab at auteur theory acolytes, and so she cherry-picked the facts on which she focused, selectively omitted others, and failed to even talk to Welles, who was very much alive, about his side of the matter. (Whatever else “Raising Kane” is, it is not very good journalism, and for some reason it seems to have evaded the scrutiny of the New Yorker’s famously rigorous fact-checking department.)

The result of “Raising Kane” was an outcry among people who care about movies, not least because Citizen Kane had attained the nearly universal status of masterpiece in the three decades since its debut — not just as Welles’s masterpiece, but as one of the greatest films ever made. The director Peter Bogdanovich, a protégé of Welles’s, penned a lengthy rebuttal in Esquire (though it was much shorter, at 10,000 words) titled “The Kane Mutiny.” He quoted Welles extensively (and some believe that Welles himself wrote the whole thing), accused Kael of twisting the truth, and said that Kael’s account was “so loaded with error and faulty supposition that it would require at least as many words as were at her disposal to correct, disprove and properly refute it.” Welles, he argued, did not deserve to be so unfairly maligned.

Mank is on Mankiewicz’s side. But it’s also not very interested in the question of who deserves the most credit for Citizen Kane.

Which side of this argument is Mank on? The film is definitely slanted toward Mankiewicz, which is no big shocker. Nobody disputes that Mankiewicz did, indeed, co-write the Citizen Kane screenplay; the argument is over how much of the resulting masterpiece is due to him and how much is due to Welles, a matter that Mank is happy to elide by skipping from Mankiewicz and Welles fighting about the screenplay draft to the 1942 Oscars, from which Welles was absent as Mankiewicz accepted the trophy for Best Original Screenplay. Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, but it only won for its screenplay, which seems to underline Kael’s point a little if you take it as read that the best films in each individual category always win.

From left, Gary Oldman, Arliss Howard, and Tom Pelphrey in Mank.

But more to the point, the author of Mank’s screenplay, Jack Fincher, used “Raising Kane” as the basis for his first draft. Between looking to Kael as a primary text and fudging some facts the ways “true” story adaptations usually do, some parts of the film match the historical record while other parts veer wildly away from it. (Matthew Dessem wrote a great rundown of Mank’s facts, half-truths, and fictions at Slate.) Still, Mankiewicz is, if not the triumphant hero of Mank, at least a kind of tragic hero, for reasons tied to its story arc.

In the Esquire article, Welles himself, as quoted by Bogdanovich, addresses how the studio system of the era treated writers like Mankiewicz, and how that treatment affected them:

The big studio system often made writers feel like second-class citizens—no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun—when Hollywood, you understand, was still a funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter and funnier than Mank. ... A perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight onto you—he was the best company in the world.

The reason the “who deserves the credit for Citizen Kane” controversy still has legs is that the film is still venerated as one of the greatest films of all time, and plenty of writers have tackled the question of its authorship. But for people who first encounter Citizen Kane in a film class or revival cinema, or on a streaming platform today, the fact that any controversy exists may not be evident — and in truth, it’s probably irrelevant. These days, it’s much more common for directors to have solo or co-writing credits on their own films, and while the auteur theory is still a widely used lens to look at movies (and I use it all the time), it doesn’t have quite the same dogmatic hold as it might have for some in the past.

Besides, Citizen Kane is just a really great movie, pleasurable from beginning to end, which is remarkable given that it’s about a would-be demagogue who dies alone and miserable. (That’s no spoiler; it happens in the first two minutes of the film.) The film holds up splendidly, nearly 80 years after its debut, which is notable in itself.

Movie poster for Citizen Kane (1941).
Movie poster for Mank (2020).

But its continuing relevance is even more astonishing if you’re aware that its original audience would have seen it as a thinly veiled tell-all movie about a very, very famous man — and a real guy, not a fictional one. That man was the megafamous businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician William Randolph Hearst.

Mank is more interested in the contentious relationship between Mankiewicz and William Randolph Hearst than what critics say about Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane’s central figure is Charles Foster Kane, an avatar of Hearst played by Welles. Kane is an incredibly wealthy man, a newspaper baron with few scruples about journalism who attains immense power, only to see it start to fade near the end of his life. In his youth, he buys a newspaper and builds it into an empire; then he marries the president’s niece. He has political aspirations. He runs for governor of New York. But his marriage ends when he falls in love with a singer of moderate talent, and the ensuing scandal destroys his political career. So he turns his attention to promoting his wife’s opera career, something she doesn’t particularly want to pursue; eventually he brings her to his Florida estate, Xanadu, which is filled with the treasures of the world, objects he can’t help but compulsively buy. Eventually she leaves him, and he dies alone, whispering the word “Rosebud.”

This story is told in a nonlinear fashion, with flashbacks and retreads. The first stretch of the film announces Kane’s death and tells the story of his life in the style of a newsreel, the sort that would have played before a feature film in a movie theater, as was common at the time. The men cutting the reel aren’t satisfied because they can’t figure out why Kane’s last word was “Rosebud,” and they send a reporter to go figure it out by interviewing Kane’s former friends and associates. So the beats of Kane’s life unfurl in bits and pieces as Citizen Kane moves between timelines. (Mank imitates this structure by bouncing back and forth between two main timelines, one as Mankiewicz writes the Citizen Kane screenplay in 1940 and one as Mankiewicz rubs elbows with Hearst in the early 1930s.)

As Mankiewicz explains to his producer in Mank, Citizen Kane is coiled like a cinnamon bun. And the reason the film holds up so well today is thanks to its very finely tuned screenplay, meaning — most likely — that its magic stems from some combination of what Mankiewicz wrote and what Welles did with it.

But Citizen Kane is also a pretty shocking film, given that Kane is very clearly William Randolph Hearst, or a figure who so closely resembles Hearst that most anyone in Citizen Kane’s 1940s audience would have recognized him as such. In the late 1880s and ’90s, Hearst built the largest newspaper and media company in America, and became famous for sensationalist “yellow journalism.” In the early 1900s, he was elected twice to Congress, and mounted unsuccessful bids for New York governor and president — all as a progressive Democrat. After he left the political sphere, his own politics began to skew more to the right; he became an isolationist and broke with FDR, whom he had previously supported. He then spent years building Hearst Castle on a 240,000-acre estate near San Simeon, California, which he never finished but where he collected vast amounts of art and other treasures from around the globe. It was as though he wanted to have the vast spoils of the world all for himself.

Hearst — who is played in Mank by Charles Dance — wasn’t dead when Citizen Kane came out in 1941, but otherwise the contours of his life were eerily similar to Kane’s. Susan, the singer who marries Kane, is modeled on Hearst’s longtime mistress, the actress Marion Davies (in Mank, Davies is played by Amanda Seyfried). Like Kane’s focus on Susan’s opera career, Hearst spent lavish amounts of money trying to put Davies in roles for which she wasn’t quite right (by all accounts, her comedic chops would’ve made her a better fit for comic roles, rather than the romantic leading lady parts he thrust her into). Like Kane, Hearst had the house, the yellow journalism career, the failed political bids — all details that moviegoers of the era would have read about. The similarities were so striking that friends and associates of Hearst tried to strong-arm Citizen Kane’s studio, RKO, into not making the film at all, and then into canceling its release. (They were partly successful. When Citizen Kane came out, only a few theaters initially agreed to show it, fearing reprisals from Hearst.)

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in Mank.

Welles enjoyed a lot of creative freedom in making the film, and he had no particular connection to Hearst. He was a 25-year-old upstart when he was hired by RKO after its president, George Schafer, heard Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast and decided to give him a huge contract to make whatever movie he wanted. Welles brought in his own acting company and hired his own writer: Mankiewicz.

Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer in Mank.

In Mank, Welles informs Mankiewicz of this freedom on the phone: that they will have “no studio notes, no one but ourselves to blame” for whatever the final product turns out to be. Mankiewicz seems to take Welles’s comment as a signal that it’s the right time to go after Hearst.

Mankiewicz and Hearst were once friends, and their break — combined with 1930s politics — is what fuels Mank

The thing is, Mankiewicz had been close with Hearst. They weren’t just acquainted; they were friends, having met when Mankiewicz started writing for Hollywood. Hearst loved having Mankiewicz around because he was amused by the writer’s sharp wit and barbed bon mots. Mankiewicz loved visiting Hearst’s palatial California estate, which, among other things, had exotic zoo animals on the grounds. Davies lived there most of the time, vacating only when Mrs. Hearst (who lived on the East Coast) came to town. Davies and Mankiewicz were pals, too. Mankiewicz and his long-suffering wife Sarah were invited to Hearst’s lavish parties, along with everyone who was anyone at the time.

So Mankiewicz’s decision to target Hearst was shocking, and the explanation for it requires a detour into Mankiewicz’s long and winding biography. To cut to the point, Hearst didn’t really approve of alcohol, and Mankiewicz’s truly excessive, legendary drinking made him progressively less welcome at Hearst’s table. The result was that Mankiewicz became progressively less welcome in Hollywood, especially in the eyes of Louis B. Mayer (in Mank, played by Arliss Howard) who ran MGM, where Mankiewicz worked for years. In Mank, Mankiewicz calls Mayer Hearst’s “lap dog” and the Sancho Panza to Hearst’s Don Quixote; he does not have much respect for Mayer at all. And he slowly grows to realize that the two of them are responsible for the industry that’s trying to shove him out the door.

All of this backstory makes Citizen Kane look like a needling act of revenge, and a profoundly surgical one, calculated to dissect Hearst’s greatest weaknesses on a big screen for everyone to see. The film portrays Hearst as both pathetically power-hungry and desperate to be loved.

In writing Mank, Fincher goes a step further, integrating a political backdrop that is both accurate and smudged around the edges. The movie flashes back frequently to a story that takes place about 10 years before the “present,” in the early 1930s, when Upton Sinclair (portrayed in Mank by Bill Nye in a delightful cameo) was running for California governor.

Sinclair was a self-avowed socialist and a muckraker whose journalism was partly responsible for exposing Hearst’s brand of “yellow journalism” — a kind of “fake news” — and showing how it pushed the limits of the American ideal of the “free press.” He wrote many books (including The Jungle, about the horrendous conditions in the meatpacking industry) and ran for governor in 1934.

There’s no real evidence that Mankiewicz was a big Sinclair fan, but in Mank, he is depicted as becoming one. He is also what one might call “socialism-curious.” Mankiewicz resists when his younger brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey), another screenwriter, urges him to join the newly formed Screen Writers Guild, a union designed to protect writers against labor exploitation by the big studios.

Mank then adds another layer to Mankiewicz’s frustration with Hearst, and one with perhaps a little more heart. He seems to develop a growing empathy for the people who don’t have the big contracts that he and other screenwriters, to say nothing of film stars and directors, have at their respective movie studios — the scenics and camera operators and others whose salaries would take a hit as the Depression went on. Everyone in Hollywood is affected when the movie business hits rocky ground, but 50 percent of Lionel Barrymore’s salary is easier to live on than 50 percent of a makeup girl’s salary. Over the course of Mank, you can see Mankiewicz’s sympathies growing. Eventually, he backs Sinclair, who loses, largely because many of Hollywood’s richest men — including Mayer, who’d soon be the chair of the state’s Republican Party, and Hearst himself — backed the conservative, Frank Merriam.

Mank ties the reason for Sinclair’s loss to a newsreel played in movie theaters that mixes truth and fiction. In it, Californians are asked who they are voting for. White, middle-class folks with American accents say they are voting for Merriam to “preserve our way of life” and to prevent their wealth from being taken away. The Sinclair backers are a Black man, shown in a truck that signifies he’s a migrant, and a Russian man who says that socialism worked in Soviet Russia, so why not here?

In Mank, the director of that reel (a fictional hybrid character) feels immensely guilty over his part in sinking Sinclair’s chances. And after Mankiewicz sees the effects of that guilt, he seems to turn entirely against Hearst and Mayer. When Mankiewicz’s work evaporates too, he has no reason to make nice anymore. And so we get Citizen Kane.

Like Citizen Kane, Mank gives an impression of a man rather than a biography

That’s a lot of background just to understand a movie like Mank. But it also suggests something important: Mank is not really a movie about who really wrote Citizen Kane. Nobody suggests that Mankiewicz doesn’t deserve his writing credit, not even Welles. And since Mank skips right over the actual production of Citizen Kane, it’s not super interested in the film itself.

Rather, Mank is a movie about a man who left a career in journalism and the theater to write for Hollywood, and found it to be almost stupidly easy. He develops drinking and gambling habits, and he makes friends in high places who love his keen wit. But then he falls out of their good graces and starts to feel uncomfortable with Hollywood hypocrisy, including his own. He catapults his own life into ruin, and he knows it. So he makes good the only way he knows how: by refusing to be deterred from writing a movie about the man, his former friend, whom he believes harbors a pathos more pathetic than his own.

Lily Collins (left) and Gary Oldman (right) in Mank.

And damn it, even if people will pay him to relinquish his imprimatur on Citizen Kane, he wants his name on the movie. He wants to make sure Hearst knows that Citizen Kane is not a jab from some upstart kid; it’s from Herman J. Mankiewicz, his former friend. So Mankiewicz stands his ground and gets his credit.

That’s why we’re still talking about him today. And Mank attempts to capture his legacy by crafting a dramatic story out of fact and fiction that poses at its center a different tragic, heroic-ish figure who dies broken, if not entirely alone. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Citizen Kane, well — with so much real-life history and drama in the mix — who could blame the Finchers for trying?

Mank premieres on Netflix on December 4.


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