Mank Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

1940, America, Hollywood. Two cars arrive at the Victorville Guest Ranch. In one of them are John Houseman (Sam Troughton), Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). In the second car – Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman): he came here from a hospital bed, as Herman had an accident and broke his leg in two places.

Herman Mankiewicz, whom everyone calls Mank, is a famous Hollywood screenwriter, one of the most witty people in Hollywood. Mank is an alcoholic, cynic and brawler. At the moment, his financial condition has been greatly shaken and Mank is ready to take on any job. And such a job turned up: the film company RKO Radio Pictures decided to invest in the film of the twenty-four-year-old child prodigy Orson Welles, who was given unprecedented creative freedom for his project: Orson has carte blanche for everything, he can independently recruit a film crew and he has the right to final editing.

Wells, through Mankiewitz’s agent John Houseman, hires Mank to write the screenplay for his first film. Initially, Mank is given three months to write the script, but after some time, Orson cuts the time to two months.

Mank desperately needs this job, and he agrees to all of Wells’ demands: for two months he will work, recovering from fractures, on a remote ranch, standing somewhere in the Mojave Desert. Mank cannot agree with one thing – with the requirement not to drink at all. But Houseman knows that Mank cannot live without alcohol, so he provides him with some supply of booze, which, however, is not so simple.

Accompanying Mank in his retreat are two ladies: Fräulein Frieda, a nurse, physiotherapist and nutritionist, and Rita Alexander, a stenographer who writes at a speed of one hundred words per minute.

Mank begins work on the script, originally titled The American. Only after a while the title will be changed to “Citizen Kane”, and according to this scenario, Orson Welles will shoot a picture that will receive an Oscar for the screenplay and which will repeatedly be called the best American film in history.

***

Director David Fincher had planned to make this film since the early nineties, when his father, journalist Jack Fincher (by the way, his real name was Howard, and Jack was his nickname), wrote the script for a film about Herman Mankiewitz, screenwriter of Citizen Kane. Obviously, Jack Fincher was influenced by a rather scandalous story when he wrote the script, when in 1971 the famous film critic Pauline Cale published a huge article “Raising Kane” in several issues of The New Yorker. In it, she downplayed the merits of Orson Welles in writing the script for this film and his importance as a director (we also note that Orson Welles also played Citizen Kane himself in the film) and argued that without Herman Mankiewitz, the film simply would not have taken place.

Kayle wanted to cause a scandal – she caused it. In a fierce controversy, Pauline’s arguments were smashed to smithereens by opponents: Mank was hired by Orson Welles as a rather technical figure, his name should not even be mentioned in the credits, Mank wrote only the first draft of the script, and in fact there were as many as seven , and in addition to Mank and Orson Welles, two other screenwriters worked on the scripts. Also, she did not conduct any investigation, she did not even talk to Orson Welles himself, who, as you know, lived until 1985.

But on the other hand, the public’s attention was drawn to the personality of Herman Mankiewicz, and Jack Fincher made the script of the picture out of this story. Of course, I didn’t read this script, but from an interview with David Fincher it follows that in the script his father was not going to film the conclusions (or fictions) of Pauline Cale and that there was a completely different idea that David implemented.

Fincher had been hatching the idea for this film since the nineties, and after the success of his film The Game, David hoped that he would be able to get funding, but David for Hollywood is too independent and difficult to dictate to producers, so Fincher could only get the opportunity to realize this project now, when the battle against traditional film studios, whose time is fortunately running out, has been joined by cool streaming services, which, simply by virtue of their internal organization, provide directors with an order of magnitude more freedom than film studios.

This film is not at all about who exactly created Citizen Kane, because in this, which is quite obvious, the main and main merit belongs to Orson Welles. And the Mank-Wells conflict takes place here at the very end, and it is not at all the central theme, and there really is no conflict: Wells, when concluding the contract (according to the film, I note), insisted that Mank’s name should not be in the credits only because he understood what a wild scandal this picture would cause, and there Mank protests against this, and the conflict actually happened in a serious way: the film “Citizen Kane” was wetted by all the so-called “free press”, owned by William Hearst at the time.

What is this movie about? About a very talented person who has a certain tendency to self-destruct, which is often the case with talented people, about how flesh and blood of Hollywood, a popular Hollywood screenwriter does not fit into this damn Hollywood, because he does not want to play by its rules, because he, in spite of everything, he is not a hypocrite: he, of course, can adapt to certain rules and agree to compromises, but he has certain convictions that he cannot compromise in any way. He may hide behind the appearance of a wino, a jester – after all, jesters are allowed a little more than ordinary people – but he speaks his mind to people who can crush him with two fingers like a bug.

With one of these people – millionaire William Hurst – Mank was kind of a friend, came to him for dinner, although he despised himself for his friendship with a millionaire, and it was about him that he wrote the script for the film “Citizen Kane”, where the prototype of Charles Foster Kane, without a doubt, it was William Hirst: it is not for nothing that many facts from his biography are used in the picture and some of his famous phrases are directly quoted.

How is it filmed and how is it played? A film about black-and-white American cinema of the thirties and forties of the last century, as expected, was made in black-and-white (it’s correct, of course, to call it shades of gray, because there are many more than fifty such shades here) and clearly built in the style of the very film “Citizen Kane ”: the picture consists of flashbacks, references to “Citizen Kane” – that’s enough, there are references to a dozen more films of the thirties and forties.

And this, of course, is not just not hidden in any way, but on the contrary, it is emphasized in every possible way: the cameraman of this film, Eric Messerschmidt (325 critics tried to joke about his last name, but I’m not a critic, so I won’t stoop to this), of course, used certain camera techniques of the brilliant Citizen Kane cameraman Gregg Toland, who found absolutely amazing angles for Kane (some characters were shown from the top points, others, on the contrary, from the bottom ones, and almost from the floor), and absolutely amazing techniques: he experimented with wide-angle lenses, creating layered and multi-layered shots. By the way, Messerschmidt also worked on Fincher’s wonderful series Mindhunter, and on other TV series, no longer Fincher’s, Fargo and Raised by Wolves.

David Fincher at the same time worked hard on authenticity in recreating that time. Entourage, clothing, scenery, shooting style, soundtrack – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were responsible for the soundtrack, who included very recognizable jazz compositions in the accompaniment, and, as I read, they were performed on jazz instruments of that time. And it is heard! You can also hear that the sound was written in a completely different way than it is done now – there is a mono sound, like in old films.

However, noting the amazing work on the form, one cannot fail to note the content, which for Fincher has always been more important than the form.

Gary Oldman as Mank is probably one of his best performances. And then I was really worried – well, he’s a wonderful actor, but for some time he was mired in these “The Dark Knights”, which, especially the first one, are beautiful in themselves (more precisely, the first one is beautiful), but Oldman simply had nothing to do there! “The Book of Eli” is a stupid movie, but Oldman is excellent there, but the role is episodic. “The Drunkest District in the World” is a very good film, but Oldman has a very episodic, but very memorable role in it.

And finally – a role worthy of his talent! A director who can reveal this talent, so the result turned out – great! Absolutely amazing harmony between the script (smart, interesting, multi-layered), the way it’s all staged, and the way it’s played by Oldman – well, really almost a masterpiece! And Oldman is insanely good both as a relatively sober wit and as a drunken truth-teller. The pre-final story about Don Quixote, when Mank ruined Hearst’s costume party, is absolutely magnificent!

Oldman is, of course, the highlight of the film, but Fincher wouldn’t be Fincher if he didn’t cast and cast other great actors who make up an excellent ensemble with Oldman.

The beautiful Charles Dance, best known as the head of the Lannister family from Game of Thrones, played William Hirst himself here. He has literally one notable episode here, when Mank comes to a costume dinner with Hurst and dumps the truth-womb in the literal and figurative sense of the word, and after that Hurst, in an empty mansion, quite friendly accompanies Mank to the exit, telling him a parable about an organ grinder monkey. The parable is iconic. Hirst hints in it that the organ grinder monkey misjudges the world and the situation around it, and that Mank is, of course, the same organ grinder monkey. And at some point Hurst directly calls Mank – monkey, that is, a monkey. But how it is played, how it is shown – it is also just the same masterpiece. But Dance is like that.

(Hirst himself, who generally invented the yellow press as such and reduced journalism to the wretchedness that we are seeing now, is worthy of a separate discussion, but this will not be in this review.)

I really liked Arliss Howard, who played the great and terrible Louis B. Meyer, one of the founders of the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film studio! You can make a separate fascinating film about him alone, but here it is clear that Fincher could not concentrate on this character for a long time.

Standing apart here is Amanda Seyfried, who played Marion Davis, Hirst’s mistress (the prototype of the singer from Citizen Kane, whom Mank brought her out), with whom Mank became friends. Amanda has a very multi-layered role: on the one hand, she is a girl from the outback, whom a rich gentleman fell in love with and made a star out of her, on the other hand, she is not so simple and cynical, and even Mank finds a kindred spirit in her, which Amanda shows and played very subtly, neatly and interestingly.

Orson Welles appears here in just a couple of episodes (on the phone in one of them): Tom Burke doesn’t look much like Orson Welles, but he imitates his manner of speaking in an amazingly cool way – apparently, that’s why Fincher took him to this role.

A lot has been written, it’s time to summarize. For me, this is an absolutely iconic film. It’s about a story that I know well, directed by a director for whom it’s a completely personal project, played by great actors. I am in awe of this film, it is absolutely wonderful from absolutely every angle!

Can I recommend this movie to everyone? This is where the questions begin. The main thing here, of course, is a certain background: why it was filmed exactly like that, what is Citizen Kane, what is Hollywood of the forties, what is the story with “Goebbels propaganda”, which is given a lot of time in the film (the history of the election of the governor of California, where how politicians, newspapermen and filmmakers used absolutely Goebbelsian methods against the leftist candidate writer Sinclair), what was Hearst like, who almost forced the United States to fight with Spain (a completely real story), and so on.

For me, who knows and understands all this (it just happened), the film seems absolutely wonderful and iconic. I have already reviewed some of the scenes, I will revise them many more times – this is an absolutely wonderful picture, downright amazing.

But it’s hard for me to imagine how it will be perceived by people who do not understand what it is all about. However, when I look at this film through the eyes of a person who evaluates only the film itself without cultural references, well, this is also beautifully filmed. Some Hollywood screenwriter writes a script for some movie, and we are shown those times – this should also look good. But it’s hard for me to understand how this is all perceived, I’ll wait for the feedback.

In my opinion, it’s a great movie. This is truly wonderful!

PS Interesting and detailed article about how the film “Citizen Kane” was filmed and what innovative solutions were used there.

Mank movie review

Producer: David Fincher

Cast:

Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monica Gossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Charles Dance

Tragicomedy, USA, 2020, 131 min.

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