I had read quite a bit of praise for Mank, the new movie about the making of Citizen Kane, before watching it on Netflix. The story is about Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman), who shared the Oscar for best screenplay with Orson Welles, the star, director, and force behind Citizen Kane (1941). “Mank” was Mankiewicz’s nickname. With its innovative cinematography, ever-shifting chronology, and playful use of newsreels, Citizen Kane is regarded by many as the best—or at least the most important—movie ever made in Hollywood. There had long been a dispute, now largely resolved, about whether it was Welles or Mankiewicz who deserved the bulk of the credit for it. Most scholars now agree that it was Welles who fundamentally shaped the film, although Mankiewicz’s contribution was real enough.
Directed by David Fincher and written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, Mank is shot in inky and shadowy black-and-white, which is intended, I suppose, to evoke the earlier film and the era when Welles and Mankiewicz battled over the script, but it often strained this viewer’s patience and eyesight. Mankiewicz was a notorious wit, a member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table. Jack Fincher does his best to give Oldman the barbed tongue of that classic romantic Hollywood figure: a brilliant writer who has sold his talent and soul to an industry dedicated to the bottom line. But Mank’s wit doesn’t quite come into full view. Or as the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane puts it, “The lines are funny, but not that funny, and it’s never easy to make us believe in someone of lofty comic repute.” In that regard, it doesn’t help that Mank is a dipsomaniac, whose verbal agility is as often derailed as fueled by booze.
Citizen Kane, of course, was a slightly veiled retelling of the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul. It is not a flattering portrait, and Hearst did everything in his power to block distribution of the film. He succeeded, at least at first. Mankiewicz and Hearst were well acquainted, even friends. In the film Mank thinks of himself as a conflicted tribune of the people, although he prefers the company of the wealthy and influential. He is also portrayed as being close to Marion Davies (played by Amanda Seyfried), the movie actress who was Hearst’s mistress. Hearst and Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM and Mankiewicz’s employer, were corporate titans determined to protect their economic interests and sabotage any progressive political movement during the Great Depression. The film proposes that Mankiewicz was embittered by their underhanded opposition to Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor of California. (As it turns out, there is no historical basis for thinking Mankiewicz supported Sinclair). A famous muckraking journalist and author of The Jungle (1906), Sinclair had long been a dedicated socialist. Nevertheless, he managed to win the Democratic nomination for governor on a platform to “End Poverty in California” (EPIC), one that included raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy and establishing old-age pensions.
Sinclair had previously run unsuccessfully for governor and other offices in California as a Socialist Party candidate. Perhaps Sinclair’s most famous sentence reads: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Mayer produced “newsreels” denouncing Sinclair with actors pretending to be ordinary citizens. He required employees to “donate” a day’s pay to Sinclair’s Republican opponent. (James Cagney refused.) Hearst’s newspapers similarly distorted Sinclair’s record, calling him a Communist. In short, they practiced the sort of redbaiting that Republicans have long embraced in their effort to roll back the welfare state, practices that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. (If you think that claim is exaggerated, read Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article “The Lie Factory: How Politics Became a Business,” September 17, 2012.)