The Final Film
by Anton Holten Nielsen
80 years ago, ‘Citizen Kane’ first gripped audiences with its take on what the death of a public man leaves behind, and how money and power, for those industrialists embodying the 20th century American dream, lead to a loss of childhood innocence. To the vast body of critical and artistic responses to this titan, widely considered the greatest picture of all time, David Fincher has added his shrewd new film, which seeks to trace out the story of how Hollywood screenwriter Herman “Mank” Manckiewicz came to write the all-time classic. ‘Mank’ has been lauded as a stylish period piece on U.S. politics and media moguls in the early 20th century, but it also portrays the hypocrisy and artistic contradictions of the writer at the onset of the modern entertainment industry. It reveals the cathartic aspiration of writing a final film that captures life’s dichotomy between personal shortcomings and great beauty.
Mank, played by Gary Oldman, has retired to a country house in the Californian desert to write Citizen Kane. He is a middle-aged alcoholic, worn out by the disarray of his life and the world in the context of World War II. In this bedridden state, he examines his experiences which later become the contours of the film: His role as court jester to the directors of movie studio MGM and influential publisher William Hearst, always the smartest guy in the room, coming up with snappy remarks like others breathe, but living frivolously with alcohol and gambling. He is sympathetic to the working-class struggle in California, yet chained to the lavish dinners and sentiments of his employers.
This is the strange ambiguity of Mank as the film cuts between past and present, both in black and white, to trace the evolution of Mank’s relationship with Hearst from the early Great Depression to the mid-1930s Nazi gloom. Mank is infatuated by the William Hearsts of the world and the promises their films make – which is why he keeps on writing manuscripts for them, despite the strange compromises he allows in the process. The infatuation is encapsulated by Mank’s relationship with Hearst’s companion and actress Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried. She is the only one that shows obvious interest in his thoughts on world affairs, literature, and the morbidity of the business they are in. The two of them roam the Hearst estate gardens filled with giraffes, elephants, and peacocks. Mank is incredibly drawn to her, almost in a romantic sense, because of how she represents the same promise as the movies; a sort of naivety and view of the world that has not been corrupted by the power of money. On the other hand, Davies lives a protected life in the vicinity of Hearst that holds Hollywood in his iron fist – and whose companions had gone to great lengths to ensure that Democratic Party and socialist Upton Sinclair was not elected as California Governor in 1934, which greatly upsets Mank. There is a stark contrast between the beauty and allure of Davies, whom Mank adores, and the tragic backdrop of poverty and unemployment of the working class that he relates to. As the years go by, this tension becomes increasingly unbearable for Mank. Events spiral out of control as he is unable to take a firm stance between his two allegiances. Mank remains absurdly passive in trying to prevent a smear campaign against socialist candidate Sinclar, who goes on to lose the race. His friend, who produced the negative campaign film in the election, commits suicide. And it is only when Mank shows up drunk to a costume party at Hearst’s, vomiting fish and white wine, that ties are permanently cut to his benefactor. These are the events that leads Mank to the Californian desert, enlisted as a writer by promising producer Orson Welles.
It would be easy to see this chronology as a tragic story about a talented writer not living up to his potential who goes on to villainise his former employers in a final, vengeful manuscript. But the film is about more than the clarity of old age – it is about relating the sins, hypocrisies, and self-loathing of Mank’s Hollywood days to what it means to be human. About speaking truth to power as an act of resistance and to produce the kind of artistic quality that money cannot buy. It is about finding meaning in tragedy, unfulfilled aspirations and to see the person gallery in Mank’s life as the archetypes that they are. In writing Citizen Kane, Mank turns Davies, Hearst, and himself into characters in a deck of cards: The Queen, the King, and the Joker. As Mank’s brother comes to tell him when reading the final script: “It is the best thing you have ever written”.
Writing the final film is a form of catharsis in more than one way. It is a personal consolidation of Mank’s emotional distress, relationships, and confusion about the state of the world. However, figuratively, the idea of writing the final film is about expressing a definitive view of the world. One last great effort by the artist to produce a work so clear and honest that it hurts to look at. This second aspiration partly explains why Citizen Kane was so well received, with nine Oscar nominations in 1942. Mank was never able to ascend to that kind of clarity again, falling back into the rut of drinking and despair. But that is the precisely great beauty of it all.