Despite being a solid film, ‘Mank’ may not be intriguing for those who haven’t watched ‘Citizen Kane’

The film is lacking in some key areas

By Scott Lerer, Collegian Correspondent

“Mank” is a newer film on Netflix about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz that focuses on him writing the first draft of “Citizen Kane,” a legendary film directed by Orson Welles and released in 1941. If you haven’t seen “Citizen Kane” before, I am not sure how much you will enjoy this film (If you haven’t, you should – it’s one of the greatest and most controversial movies ever created). Despite the numerous ideas and theories out there about “Citizen Kane,” I urge you to watch it for yourself to form your own opinion.

“Mank” is directed by David Fincher, who is well known for thrillers such as “Seven,” “Zodiac” and “Gone Girl.” In the past decade, he has become more involved in television, working on Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter.”

Fincher uses multiple techniques to make the film look reminiscent of the early 1940s. Beyond shooting in black and white,  Fincher also makes use of sets and film techniques of the time, such as day for night shooting. There are also artificial marks of an old film, such as cigarette burns to make the film look like an old unrestored film. These artificial markings are few and far between but can become annoying and distracting while watching the film, which runs for over two hours. In addition, with the increase in film preservation and restoration during the past 30 years, the likelihood of people recognizing things like cigarette burns on the film is low. Younger viewers might not feel nostalgic about it, but confused and annoyed.

The score is also meant to sound like something you would hear in a film from the 1930s or 1940s. The score is done by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, members of the band Nine Inch Nails. The two previously composed the scores for Fincher’s films “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.” The score works, successfully producing the feel of a film of that era. Further, there are some intentional audio errors to make you feel like you are watching an old film that hasn’t been restored.

The film follows an alcoholic and injured Herman Mankiewicz as he dictates the script of the first draft of “Citizen Kane.” As he struggles with alcoholism and his deadline, the plot cuts back to Mankiewicz’s life starting with the early 1930s, slowly moving up to the 1940s. The 1930s scenes show Mankiewicz’s encounters with William Randolph Hearst, who would become the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane. Here, Mankiewicz sees the power and corruption of not only Hearst but also the movie studios in general as they create propaganda to stop Upton Sinclair from becoming governor of California.

Gary Oldman gives a great performance as the titular character. Despite being significantly older than Mankiewicz would have been at the time, Oldman is able to capture the many facets of the screenwriter. The character in some ways is someone who is standing up for what is right, but in other ways acts like a complete drunken idiot just trying to irritate people and be clever. These aspects of Mankiewicz’s character are by far the most engaging parts of the film, particularly during the scenes preceding the Upton Sinclair election. However, the parts set in 1940 are too easily resolved, especially the conflict between Mankiewicz and the secretary dictating the script. This makes the film somewhat lack emotional weight.

Further, there is a problem with the film that is extremely jarring and really takes you out of the story — the film has one of the worst casting choices I have ever seen. Bill Nye the Science Guy plays Upton Sinclair, a real-life historical figure who is important to the story being told. Although the character only shows up for less than a minute on screen, his presence in the story is important.

Moreover, a point of controversy with the film is how it depicts Mankiewicz and Welles’ roles in writing “Citizen Kane.” Who is responsible for writing the original film has been a much-disputed issue over the years. In this film, Welles barely shows up and is never shown contributing to the script of “Citizen Kane.” The actor who portrays Welles does a solid impression of him, but he is a very minor character in the film. Welles in “Mank” isn’t really given much character development, and the audience never sees his side of the story. The film ends with showing Mankiewicz claim he should have gotten sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane.” If an audience member doesn’t do any research after watching the film, they may get a very one-sided perspective on this argument.

The film, while fairly well made, is lacking in some key areas. If you’ve seen “Citizen Kane,” you’ll probably enjoy this film. However, I think that the general audience will have trouble becoming emotionally engaged in the story as told by “Mank.” Despite the film’s downfalls, due to the scarcity of films that came out in 2020, “Mank” may easily end up as one of the better ones.

Scott Lerer can be reached at [email protected].