‘Mank’ Review: Films about films are rarely as good as this

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

Gary Oldman

The 1941 American film Citizen Kane is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. The film is co-written and directed by Orson Welles, who also plays the lead character of Charles Foster Kane—a character that is said to be based on American media mogul William Randolph Hearst. In other words, Citizen Kane is a film à clef i.e. a film describing real life, behind a façade of fiction. It was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories, but it only won one—Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). As co-writers, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles shared the award. Now, David Fincher’s 2020 film Mank, based on a screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher, is a biographical film about Mankiewicz (AKA Mank) and his development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Essentially a film about the birth of another film, Mank re-evaluates the 1930s Hollywood through an alcoholic Mank (superbly played by Gary Oldman) as he races to finish Citizen Kane. Following a limited theatrical release, Mank is now streaming on Netflix.

Now, other than its sprawling narrative structure and singularly brilliant performances, Citizen Kane is particularly praised for Gregg Toland's chiaroscuro black-and-white imagery coupled with his bravura use of deep focus and low angles. Almost eight decades have passed since its release, but the film’s spiraling narrative and technical brilliance continues to inspire films and filmmakers from all across the globe. While Mank is a film about the origins of Citizen Kane, it is also a film that’s inspired by it. Director of Photography, Erik Messerschmidt, who was a gaffer on Gone Girl has quickly emerged as Fincher’s go-to cinematographer. After working his magic on both the seasons of Mindhunter, Messerschmidt has produced the definitive work of his career on Mank. And it’s not just a homage to Gregg Toland's seminal work on Citizen Kane but it’s actually worthy of an independent assessment.

In fact, Messerschmidt’s breathtaking black-and-white cinematography in Mank has made him strongest contender for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography at the 93rd Academy Awards, scheduled for April next year. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mank goes on to win in a bunch of other categories including Best Picture. For, films about films are rarely this good. Some of the best ones that come to mind are Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (a 1982 documentary film about the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo in the jungles of Peru), Chris Marker’s A.K. (Chris Marker’s 1985 documentary film following the making of Akira Kurosawa's 1985 period epic Ran in Japan), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (a 1991 documentary film chronicling the endless problems that Francis Ford Coppola faced while making his 1979 anti-war epic Apocalypse Now in Philippines), and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (a 2000 metafiction film about the making of F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire film Nosferatu). I strongly believe that Mank too belongs here.

Mank is as meta as meta can be. Even the flashbacks take place with screenplay-styled markings flashing on the screen, characteristically denoting place and time (like "EXT. MGM STUDIOS – ELECTION EVE – NIGHT – 1934”), with the sound of a typewriter clacking over the markings. There is a scene in Mank wherein a studio boss tells one of his young executives, “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought stills belongs to the man who sold it. That's the real magic of the movies and don't let anybody tell you different.” Can there be a better way of explaining the movie business to a new entrant? The dialogue in Mank is so good that you won’t see a movie with better cinematic dialogue this year.

Now, the issue of authorship of Citizen Kane’s screenplay has been one of the long-standing controversies. Renowned American film critic Pauline Kael infamously revived the controversy over its authorship with her 1971 book-length essay titled "Raising Kane". While celebrating Mankiewicz, who is officially the first-credited co-author of the Oscar-winning screenplay, she denigrated the contributions of Orson Welles. Fincher’s Mank too takes the same route and significantly downplays Welles’ contribution to the screenplay. Perhaps, the screenplay of Citizen Kane wouldn’t have been possible without the intricate details that Mank knew about Hearst Castle (the inspiration for Kane’s estate ‘Xanadu’), Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies (brilliantly essayed by Amanda Seyfried), who is said to be the true inspiration behind Citizen Kane’s famously mysterious ‘Rosebud’. Or maybe Mank didn’t share a close friendship with Davies in realty. However, what cannot be denied is that the screenplay was just one cog in the machine that helped immortalize Citizen Kane. As for Fincher’s Mank, as perhaps Herman Mankiewicz would have said, there are films about the origins of films and films that are inspired by films, but the best amongst them are those which despite being both are equally capable of standing on their own. As cinematically rich and layered Mank is, it is certainly no meant for casual viewing.

A version of this article was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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