David Fincher’s Mank Reframes Citizen Kane Origin Story as Mankiewicz’s Brilliance

The new trailer for David Fincher’s Mank provides Old Hollywood style to the contentious origin story of Citizen Kane’s writing, and whether Orson Welles deserves credit.

Gary Oldman in David Fincher's Mank
Photo: Netflix

It holds the lofty perch of being the greatest cinematic achievement of all-time. The American Film Institute picked it as the best movie ever made. Twice. François Truffaut filmed himself daydreaming of Orson Welles in Day for Night (1973). Liev Schreiber starred as Welles in an HBO movie about the film’s making.

Citizen Kane is like the white whale for moviemakers who want to make movies about other moviemakers. And now David Fincher is giving it a singular, and possibly revisionist, angle in Mank, a new Netflix film starring Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Herman’s name is arguably not as famous as that of his younger brother, Joseph Mankiewicz, the latter of whom wrote and directed All About Eve (1950) and Cleopatra (1963), but Fincher and his father Jack Fincher, the latter of whom wrote the screenplay for Netflix’s Mank, seem to argue he should be. As depicted in the movie, Mank is the mad genius drinker who until his last breath lived and breathed Citizen Kane, dropping a bottle of liquor in his bed the same way Welles’ legendary Charles Foster Kane dropped his snow globe—uttering “Rosebud” and kick-starting his film’s brilliant narrative structure.

Over the years the story of Citizen Kane’s actual authorship has been debated and challenged, and the Mank trailer shows it will be contended with again on Netflix. In the latest trailer, we see Welles (Tom Burke) dare Mank to write a fictionalized satire of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) by saying, “Are you ready to hunt the Great White Whale?” Mank deadpans over the phone, “Call me Ahab.” With the assertion that Mank had a torrid affair with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), the starlet mistress of Hearst, the movie posits Citizen Kane’s insight into who Kane is came from Mank’s intimate knowledge of Hearst and his lover… including the word “Rosebud.”

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Mank’s even warned in the trailer that when Hearst comes for him, “the Boy Genius from New York” (Welles) will not be able to save him.

This narrative heft will likely become significant for film historians who still grapple with the Citizen Kane origin story. Indeed, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael famously wrote a pair of essays in 1971 titled “Raising Kane” in which she took to task Welles, the film, and the generation of new filmmakers like Truffaut who admired it. Among her assertions were that it was a shallow film for shallow people, writing, “It isn’t a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty. It is a shallow work, a shallow masterpiece. Those who try to account for its stature as a film by claiming it to be profound are simply dodging the problem.”

However, she also goes on to assert Mank deserves the sole credit for writing Citizen Kane, and Welles never earned his co-writing Oscar on the film. Not that she takes kindly to Mank’s alleged exploitation of the patrician class to do so. As Kael wrote, “Mankiewicz was a friend of both Marion Davies and Hearst, and had been a frequent guest at her beach house at San Simeon… Mankiewicz betrayed their hospitality, even though he liked them both.”

As for Welles’ contribution to the script, Kael surmised, “Orson Welles wasn’t around when Citizen Kane was written in 1940.” Rather she believes, as glimpsed in the Mank trailer, Welles had early conversations with Mankiewicz about the concept and “may have given advice” by phone or letter as he received weekly copies of Mank’s work.

This assertion was quickly challenged by the likes of film critic Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich. And in 1978 academic Robert L. Carringer completely discredited Kael’s claims that Welles did not deserve credit. Rather he wrote, based on cited script revisions, that Mankiewicz created the framework of the story and cast of characters, as well as a large amount of the dialogue, but Welles added “the narrative brilliance—the visual and verbal wit, the stylistic fluidity, and such stunningly original strokes as the newspaper montages and the breakfast table sequence. He also transformed Kane from a cardboard fictionalization of Hearst into a figure of mystery and epic magnificence.”

It remains unclear how much credit (or lack thereof) David and Jack Fincher will give Welles in their telling, but they are definitely wading into the myth, as well as that “stylistic fluidity” of the 1941 classic.

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Like the teaser before it, the new Mank trailer evokes the stylistic flourishes of Welles’ film, including the use of deep focus photography, and other quirks from 1930s or ‘40s Hollywood cinema, be it champagne dripping from glasses like it were a Fred and Ginger musical or superimposed images over the actors looking as much like a Val Lewton picture as a Welles one. And in its own small way, it’s fun to see Oldman in such a work after starring in the equally backward-looking Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was filmed largely with the type of magician’s tricks used in early cinema at the turn of the 20th century.

We will of course have to wait and see what the finished product of Mank has to say about Citizen Kane’s creation, but to be sure the film scholars will be watching with interest.