‘Mank’ Movie Review: The ‘Citizen Kane’ of ‘Citizen Kane’ Biopics

To many modern cinephiles, the fact that Mank is a David Fincher movie is enough. That it’s about the writing of Citizen Kane and the politics surrounding it may be an afterthought. To historical cinephiles, the combination of filmmaker and subject matter will make it a must see, and the cast puts it over the edge. 

Citizen Kane screenwriter biopic Mank
Gary Oldman | Netflix

Gary Oldman IS ‘Mank’

Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has 90 days to write his first draft of a movie for Orson Wells (Tom Burke) in 1940. His leg is in a cast so he’s pretty much confined to the bed to write anyway. Along the way, Mank, for short, flashes back to events from the ‘30s that inform what would become Citizen Kane

David Fincher stylizes ‘Mank’ like ‘Citizen Kane’

The style of Mank is even more compelling than the substance, and the substance ain’t chopped liver. Fincher films Mank in black and white and uses lots of effects to make it feel like a movie made in the same time as Citizen Kane. You’ll see cigarette burns at reel change intervals, and the sound has the echo and static of classic film. Don’t worry, it’s always clear and understandable.

Mank and Marion Davies
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman | Netflix

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The cinematography reflects the styles of ‘40s films too, although now you get to see those shots in a widescreen frame. A car crash happens off camera because they wouldn’t film it in 1940. Although, there were probably no extended walk and talks back then but a film historian can correct me if there actually were. 

A few filmmakers have adapted historic filmmaking styles. Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German was a more traditional, static approach. Fincher is a bit more anachronistic, having some fun with the style. Printing the scene descriptions on the screen definitely wasn’t a historical style, but watching a master play with the format is fun. 

Making history 

The flashbacks in particular give a sense of both who Mank was and how Hollywood was at the time. The film industry is a big secret club. They all relate to each other, and they’re so good they don’t have to take writing so seriously. They schmooze and goof off and still deliver.

Citizen Kane behind the scenes Mank
L-R: Adam Shapiro, Gary Oldman and Joseph Cross | Netflix

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There were probably plenty who goofed off and didn’t deliver but David Fincher doesn’t make movies about them. Mank can kill time in his office betting on coin flips, while his secretary sits at the typewriter wearing pasties waiting for dictation. He’s so good he can afford these diversions. 

Powerful men like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) make important speeches while Mank and others are snarky behind the scenes, just like we are today. The film shows how Mank navigated World War II politics at the studios while maintaining his career, to the extent he was able to. Sometimes the studios won. 

Mank: Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg
L-R: Arliss Howard and Ferdinand Kingsley | Netflix

Cinephiles will love this portrait of Hollywood legends. If you didn’t know the names before you’ll be captivated by the engaging personalities and perhaps motivated to dig into TCM or Criterion Channel.