Raise your hand, all you movie lovers and cinema buffs who hardly hesitate when asked what is the most important movie ever made or, alternatively, what it the best film of all times, before you answer, “Citizen Kane.”
“Mank,” David Fincher’s movie about the script of that brightest of all gems, was originally written a few years back by Fincher’s father and called “American.” Now, starring Gary Oldman as an out-of-shape slush half-failed script writer still hoping, but not really, for his break, we’re in for surprises that sent this critic on an immediate chase for reliable sources. Is it true that the script that became “Citizen Kane” was not the creation of Orson Welles, the twenty-four-year-old genius who had already held the world in thrall with his sci-fi fake radio program two years before, almost causing a world panic, but by Mank or Herman Mankiewicz, brother of Joe Mankiewicz of “All about Eve” fame, among others?
The film, in gorgeous black and white, is a neat bit of fiction. The failed writer managed to persuade Welles to adapt parts of this script but it did, more or less, follow Welles’s specifications. He also got co-writing credits. The film was awarded the only Oscar “Kane” ever received, with both Welles and Mank as recipients.
Riding along is a delight, for the reconstruction of old Hollywood with all those ego monsters—Louis B. Mayer, John Houseman, David Selznick et al—then the actual people whose story “Kane” more or less tells—Hearst, as performed by Charles Dance, excellent in his usual Charles Dance turn—Marion Davies, his mistress, also brief appearances by the wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke), a hurricane in motion.
Beside watching, the added test for viewers is deciphering each wordplay, each hint of these times long gone, and second-guessing the authors about what’s true and what is not.
Spoiler alert (but not really, as so much has already been written about this): Orson Welles is the author, the scriptwriter, the designer, the filmmaker, and the force of nature behind “Citizen Kane.” Mank much helped with the writing and is rightly honored, if through many detours, by the Fincher film. Which is a joy to watch, as all films should be, as “Citizen Kane” is, and more so with every new viewing.
Post-scriptum: do we want a post-Covid world in which movies can only be accessed through streaming services, where we will never walk into a theater again and see that big screen light up? Would we have wanted to see “Kane” like that?