With Netflix’s latest auteur oriented film release, in the form of “Mank” directed by David Fincher, shining a light on the lesser known screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane”, I figured this would be the perfect excuse to write a double feature review on both films. I’ll start with ‘Kane‘ and then dive into “Mank” afterwards. I highly recommend looking into the history of Old Hollywood and its key players to fully enjoy and understand the extent of each of these films. If you don’t already know the name William Randolph Hearst, he’s an integral piece of the puzzle when it comes to these films, a quick google search would go a long way in parsing out “Citizen Kane” at the very least. Oh, and fair warning, I will be spoiling key plot points of these films in order to freely discuss them. I’d suggest giving them a watch first and then returning here for analysis. Enjoy!
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles, “Citizen Kane” is the film lauded for most of the twentieth century as “The Best Film ever made!“. While I’m loathe to give any one film such a title, Welles’ first film is certainly one that should be in the conversation when discussing some of the most groundbreaking and revelatory films in cinema’s young history. To better understand the context of this film you’ll have to dig into the history of both Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the man that Charles Foster Kane was based on, and the very public feud between them. Hearst’s onscreen counterpart certainly has a lot in common with the real McCoy, and while there are differences between the man and the character, the broad strokes are there- and impossible to deny. Hearst was the son of a millionaire mining engineer who owned several gold rich mines. Both he and Kane went to, and were kicked out of, Harvard. Both men were fiery liberal progressives in their youth who bought out several newspapers across the country and started several salacious circulation wars between rival Newspapers of reknown. Both were titans of the print industry and each used their persuasive papers to push for a war with Spain over Cuba’s independence, and while historians have downplayed Hearst’s claim of personally starting the Spanish-American war of 1898, he did have an immense effect on the public’s fury over the topic. Later, after World War One, both men turned more conservative and isolationist in ideology. They both had mistresses that they made grandiose gestures for, one in Hollywood, the other in Opera. Both men also grew dissatisfied with the world after losing very publicly in their political pursuits, and each turned their isolationist views into reality by building outrageously over the top castles on acres and acres of land, the real one in California, with Kane’s “Xanadu” in Florida.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, (I highly encourage you to do so, it’s pretty good!), it begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as he gasps his final word, “Rosebud”. Kane’s death reverberates through the News publications of the world, and one such outlet designing a visual obiturary reel titled “News On The March!” gives the audience a quick outline of the Newspaper Magnate’s life in bullet points. The editor of the Newsreel then delegates Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with finding the meaning behind Kane’s last words. The rest of the film is divided into flashbacks on Kane’s life through Thompson’s investigation and interviews with the people who were closest to Kane. Initially he tries to talk with Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his mistress and second wife, though she’s inconsolable during his first attempt. Thompson next goes to the vault of the late banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) who oversaw Kane’s trust fund from childhood until his twenty-fifth birthday. While reading Thatcher’s personal memoirs, Thompson learns of Kane’s financial rise and fall. Under the prudent investments that Thatcher had made while Kane was in his youth, he had essentially become one of the richest men in the world by the time he took over his finances. Kane acquired many Newspapers and fiercely fought against the business practices of Thatcher himself and those of his ilk. None of this brought Thompson any closer to finding the truth about “Rosebud” however, and he moved on to interviewing Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). Bernstein’s interview and flashback is personally my favorite segment of the film. It focuses on the early days of Kane’s purchase of The New York Inquirer and his circulation war with Chronicle, of whom he effectively stole the top journalists from. This began his intense interest in collecting both people and things for the rest of his life. The scenes of the early days at The Inquirer are full of energy and confidence, with Welles’ Kane striking a resemblance to future onscreen billionaires like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, AKA The Wolf of Wall Street. The next two candidates for interview were Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) Kane’s estranged best friend and a return to interview a more collected Susan Alexander Kane. Both subjects clue Thompson in to the more intimate relationships and nature of Kane as a person and how he evolved over time in the latter half of his life. The final shot at finding the meaning behind Kane’s final words lay with Kane’s butler at Xanadu, Raymond (Paul Stewart). Raymond knows of at least one other time Kane uttered the word ‘Rosebud’, but it’s not enough to form a better understanding of its revelance to Kane or his life. Thompson finally ends his search with his time at Xanadu, saying that he doubts any one word could unlock the mysteries of a man such as Kane, or any other man for that matter. Though we, the audience, receive the truth as we witness unnamed workers clearing out the treasure trove of Xanadu’s massive collection. A small snow sled is casually tossed into the incinerator, which we see inscribed with the word Rosebud, as it is set ablaze.
With this film Orson Welles broke new ground in filmmaking, generating new techniques and methodology that would spur filmmakers of the future to similarly write new rules of cinema as they saw fit. Even though “Citizen Kane” didn’t make any money due mostly to the blackout campaign that Hearst waged against the film’s release, Orson Welles succeeded in making a revolutionary film that has stood the test of time. His career following this would be a constant battle against the studio system of Hollywood, ever vying for artistic control against the bottom line of the studio’s budget. In the end Welles’ career as a filmmaker would outlive the studio system that he battled against for decades, so, in that respect, he won. “Citizen Kane” is an excellent film, and a touchstone of history in cinema. If you care at all about the history of movies, this one is a must watch.
Final Score: 1 Snowglobe
Written by Jack Fincher and directed by David Fincher, “Mank” is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter of one of the most infamous films of all time, “Citizen Kane”. Much like how ‘Kane‘ used flashbacks to try to understand the elusive fictional media figurehead, “Mank” also uses flashbacks of our titular character to better understand him and his reasons for writing what is effectively a character assasination of one of the most powerful men in media at the time. While the film eschews direct character interviews to provide the flashbacks structure, there is a similar string of characters important to Mank who visit him to persuade him not to take on Hearst, which is an entertaining flip. The film begins with Mank being driven out to a small homestead in the Mojave desert with a large cast entombing one of his legs. In this temporary abode Mank is supported by two women, Rita (Lily Collins) a British Secretary that types for him as he dictates from bed initially while also effectively working as a sounding board for script ideas and insight, and Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) who attends his medical needs as he needs them. He’s also repeatedly visited by John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the politely anxious assistant of Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who calls and eventually stops by for consultation. The series of flashbacks, which are charmingly introduced with screenwriting introductions like EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK), begin in 1930 when Mank is introduced to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) via a set visit of one of the films starring Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Thus beginning a near decade of Mank’s involvement in Hearst’s inner circle of friends and various recipients of his vast wealth and empire. The film goes back in forth in time as we garner information about Mank’s time with Hearst’s inner circle and how Mank views the film industry and politics (there’s probably some insight into how David Fincher views these as well). We see the effects of the great depression on the movie industry and the true nature of the old school movie studio executives like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). There’s also a surprising amount of screentime given to Upton Sinclair’s (portrayed in one scene by Bill Nye) 1934 campaign for Governor of California, beseiged by the power hungry political machine run by Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg to name a few.
What really hooked me with this movie was that the film wasn’t interested in the “how” of Mank writing ‘Kane‘, but the “why”? Sure, the real life drama was more about the fight for screenwriting credit of the script between Mank and Welles, and this film does touch on that, but only briefly near the end. Instead the film poignantly focuses on the years building to Mank’s writing of ‘Kane‘, when he was in the orbit of Hearst through most of the 1930’s, witnessing the reality of powerful people, and how they manipulate systematic control through crushing fiscal hegemony. Mank tries to do what he can to combat these actions, but ultimately hes’ a beneficiary of that exact system, and it’s not until he sees the brutal effects that these manipulations have on ordinary people that he decides to dig in his heels and do something about it. Personally, my favorite scene is the drunken monologue at Hearst mansion where Mank essentially pitches “Citizen Kane”, mockingly, to Hearst as he entertains a dinner. One by one the loyal roaches, like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, slink away from the table, eager not to be associated with the court jester’s imminent ousting. Apparently, the scene took over one-hundred takes to nail down before Fincher and company were happy with it- and I have to say, the juice was worth the squeeze with this one. While I’m not sure if this is technically the best film that was released in 2020, it may end up being my favorite film of this terrible, awful, year. For it shows that principles, in the end, matter more than power. At least, that’s what I got out of it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me interested in a film about a screenwriter, I’m the core audience- I just also happen to completely adore the character of Mank as portrayed by Gary Oldman in this movie. Witty, entirely fallible, Mank employs self-deprecating humor at every opportunity, and he’s incredibly capable of delivering corrosive criticism with sharp clarity while completely sauced. He uses words and a literary understanding of the world to not only get himself into far too much trouble, but to gracefully avoid it at times as well. The choice to cast Charles Dance as Hearst was Brilliant! Dance is particularly skilled at portraying powerful figures of aristocracy, and his performance here only enhances the production as a whole. I also have to praise the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it’s perfectly period accurate and delightfully engaging! The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and editing by Kirk Baxter also pair to give the film an authentic ‘Old Hollywood‘ tangibility. I really just dig the look, sound, and feel of this film. For me, it all works gloriously.
“Mank” is out now on Netflix in the US and I highly encourage you to check it out if you can. Everything about this film worked for me, hopefully you’ll get some satisfaction out of it as well! I’ve also linked below to an article from the New York Times about the Upton Sinclair election in 1934, which was pretty neat and quite valuable in layering “Mank”‘s historical accuracy versus the fictional liberties they took in creating the film. Enjoy!
Final Score: A Debt of $24,000
For some more information on what “Mank” got right with the Upton Sinclair campaign in 1934, check out this informative NY Times article: