Rather Fincher, as well as his late father Jack Fincher, who wrote the Mank screenplay in the 1990s, prefer to penetrate the Welles “boy genius” myth—defying the general perception that Welles alone invented everything great about Kane at the age of 25. The Finchers are instead consumed with shining a light on Mankiewicz, plus the influences and regrets that drove him to pen Kane as an act of revenge against former friends and benefactors like old newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his younger movie starlet girlfriend, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
In this sense, Mank luxuriates in the written word to a greater degree than any Fincher film since The Social Network. With a highly literate script, Mank takes on the rapid-fire cadence of an early 1930s talkie, the type the real Mank cut his teeth on a decade before he holed up in the Mojave Desert. As a member of the fabled “Algonquin Club” of writers during the ‘20s, Herman was among the first of the New York playwrights and theater critics to sell out and move west, taking the lucrative paycheck of Hollywood work. He got rich but, in the mind of him and his contemporaries, sold his soul to mediocrity beneath his talent.
Even if he did, Mankiewicz contributed to some of the greatest comedies ever written, and had a hand in several Marx Brothers movies, including Monkey Business and A Night at the Opera—until he was fired off the latter by Irving Thalberg for his drunkenness. Mank picks up on the real Mankiewicz’s sensibility that words are weapons, as well as aphrodisiacs. The movie even suggests Mank betrayed his wife “Poor Sara” (Tuppence Middleton) entirely through witty repartee with Seyfried’s Davies. But betrayal is something Mank is acutely aware of given he was Davies’ favorite guest to San Simeon, a castle-like estate the wealthy Hearst holds court at with Marion. Mankiewicz was always invited to play court jester.
It’s at these parties that Mank gets the idea to turn his pair of hosts, particularly Hearst, into the tragic figures at the heart of Citizen Kane. And for the first time, Mank offers a concrete rationale for Mank’s double-cross, rooting it in a sober look at Old Hollywood that is absent the glossy romanticism so many other modern productions indulge. Mank’s Hollywood is a dream factory of deep shadows, but the kind that loom from base capitalistic greed and union fights; not epic noir nihilism. There is something more simplistic, and utilitarian, about the blackness here.
With the exception of some Welles-esque flourishes at Hearst’s San Simeon estate, and inside the much more dreamlike pressure cooker of the North Verde desert, Fincher visually eschews Citizen Kane and its mythmaking. This may even be Fincher at his most restrained, as the director evokes a traditional Hollywood approach to storytelling. He and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shoot the film almost entirely at eye-level, and seem more interested in the visual tricks of a Val Lewton horror movie or, occasionally, a Busby Berkeley musical. Fincher even marries them, with superimposed images of overflowing champagne glasses haunting Mank’s vision as he finds himself surrounded by enemies at a Republican Party gala on election night.