If you look at any list of the best films ever made, Citizen Kane is likely to appear at the top. Orson Welles' 1941 drama is considered revolutionary for its non-linear storytelling, camerawork that bucked the norms, and its spanning of multiple genres. Welles' story followed the life of Charles Foster Kane, a millionaire newspaper tycoon who was loosely based on William Randolph Hearst. Now, almost 80 years later, David Fincher's latest Netflix film Mank takes you behind the scenes of the making of Citizen Kane. The film focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who wrote Citizen Kane, and whose battle with Welles for screenwriting credit is still contentiously debated to this day.
Herman J. Mankiewicz or "Mank," as he was called during his career and in Fincher's film, was born in 1897. In the early part of his career, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, drama critic for the New York Times and the New Yorker, and as a playwright, according to the Boston Globe. His work eventually earned him an invitation out West to write films, and it's there, in the early days of the studio system of Old Hollywood where Mank tells its tale.
When Mank begins, the Great Depression is in full swing, but the film industry is still going strong. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, is quickly established as, "a man who always goes one joke too far, drinks one glass too many, and crows about being the one angry socialist in a room of millionaires," The Atlantic writes. The Boston Globe also adds that, "He drank too much. He gambled too much. He was undiplomatic too much."
Despite his cynical disposition, the real-life Mankiewicz contributed to some of the most famous movies of the era: including The Wizard of Oz, Pride of the Yankees, and a number of Marx Brothers movies. Most of his early work was uncredited, though he didn't much care, as long as he got paid. In New York, he may have taken his writing more seriously, but in Hollywood, he preferred to "dash off crowd-pleasers in exchange for a healthy paycheck," The Atlantic writes. That outlook changed, however, with Citizen Kane.
As Mank tells it, while healing from a broken leg, Mankiewicz takes a job writing for 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles. Then, Mank flashes back ten years prior to when the writer befriended young Hollywood starlet Marion Davies and joined the inner circle of she and her much older lover, William Randolph Hearst. He would attend lavish parties and getaways with fellow Hollywood royalty at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.
It's been presumed for decades that Mankiewicz based Kane on Hearst, though Mank takes many liberties, according to Slate, to explain why the writer suddenly turns on his friends. The film especially takes these liberties in regard to why he would craft a screenplay in which Hearst, Davies, and their whole cabal could all be considered unlikable, treacherous, wealthy villains.
What is very true, however, is that once Mankiewicz finished his Citizen Kane script, he fought with Welles for credit, going against their original contract. They both received screenwriter credit in the end, with Mankiewicz insisting that he wrote the script alone, and Welles continuing to assert that they worked on it together. (Ultimately they shared Citizen Kane's Academy Award for Original Screenplay.)
As a film, Mank is essentially a love letter to Citizen Kane, Old Hollywood, and a writer's artistic process. Mankiewicz died in 1953, and though Mank doesn't tell the entire story of his life, it does illuminate the creation of what may be considered his most cherished contribution to the world of movies. And as Mankiewicz says himself in the film, "You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one."