TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz won an Oscar with Orson Welles for writing the 1941 film "Citizen Kane," which is considered by many to be the greatest motion picture of all time. Now David Fincher has directed a new black-and-white drama called "Mank" about Mankiewicz's life and art and the inspiration for his work on "Citizen Kane." "Mank" is streaming on Netflix. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The delicious inside Hollywood drama "Mank" begins in 1940 at a ranch in the desert town of Victorville, Calif., where Herman J. Mankiewicz is holding up for a few months, recovering from a broken leg. He spends that time writing a screenplay that will yield one of the cinema's all-time masterpieces, "Citizen Kane," the tale of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper tycoon, loosely inspired by William Randolph Hearst. The film's groundbreaking visual and narrative complexity will make its 25-year-old director and star, Orson Welles, a Hollywood legend. But "Mank" isn't out to burnish Welles' reputation. It's about the lesser-known Mankiewicz, a brilliant, acerbic, hard-drinking writer played by a superb Gary Oldman, who, after years of cranking out scripts for studios like Paramount and MGM, came to do the most meaningful work of his life.
"Mank" is a tribute to the art of screenwriters like Mankiewicz, many of them New York journalists, novelists and playwrights who flocked to Hollywood and, despite their skepticism toward the industry, helped make its movies great. Fittingly, "Mank" is also one writer's labor of love. The script was written in the 1990s by the journalist Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. Now, years later, it's been dusted off and directed by his son, David Fincher, known for earlier fact-based dramas like "Zodiac" and "The Social Network."
"Mank" is another dazzling feat of historical reimagining, exquisitely detailed and impeccably made. Its black-and-white surface is so rich and evocative that you want to sink into it. But you also want to lean forward so as not to miss a word of its mile-a-minute dialogue.
In one scene, Mankiewicz receives gushing feedback from his editor, John Houseman, played by Sam Troughton. Also present is his secretary, Rita Alexander - that's Lily Collins - who painstakingly transcribed every word of the script.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")
CHANG: (As John Houseman) It's good, Mank - damn good.
LILY COLLINS: (As Rita Alexander) I have it on highest authority it's the best thing he's ever done.
SAM TROUGHTON: (As John Houseman) As a moving picture, it's more than good. I'm at a loss to even express how wealth and influence can crush a man, its leer the dark night of the soul. And I was completely mistaken. The shifting point of view is revolutionary. I never thought one could care so much about a sled.
GARY OLDMAN: (As Herman J. Mankiewicz) That's kind of you to say.
TROUGHTON: (As John Houseman) But (laughter) - but I hear it's 327 pages, an embarrassment of riches. When the dog-faced boy gets here, there will be plenty of branches to prune.
OLDMAN: (As Herman J. Mankiewicz) A far too long screenplay for the ages - John Houseman. I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that's his job.
CHANG: Although the question of whether Welles or Mankiewicz deserves more credit for writing "Citizen Kane" is still disputed by some critics and historians, "Mank" the movie only briefly touches on the debate. Like many truth-inspired films, it's a playful weave of fact and fiction. And without disputing Welles' genius, it argues that Mankiewicz's role in the movie's authorship was not just essential, but foundational.
The story jumps back-and-forth in time, showing us Mankiewicz's steady rise through the industry ranks in the 1930s and the many friends and enemies he will make along the way who will influence the plot of "Citizen Kane." Mankiewicz's gossipy wit earns him a place in the inner circle of William Randolph Hearst, played by a reptilian Charles Dance. Mankiewicz becomes close friends with Hearst's longtime companion, the actress Marion Davies, who will serve as the basis for Kane's own paramour. Davies is played by a terrific, if underused, Amanda Seyfried. Hearst's castle in San Simeon, where Mankiewicz is a regular party guest, will become Kane's gothic estate, Xanadu.
But Mankiewicz's most significant influence isn't a person or a place. It's a political campaign, specifically the 1934 California gubernatorial race in which Hearst, conspiring with top MGM players like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, torpedoes the Democratic candidate, Upton Sinclair, whose socialist views they deplore. This subplot, set against the labor struggles of Depression-era Hollywood, delivers some of the story's most fascinating and resonant moments.
The movie industry may be known today for its liberalism, but "Mank" returns us to a time when the studios were closely tied to conservative media and were not above manipulating voters with phony newsreels and other forms of propaganda. Mankiewicz has a naturally rebellious, anti-establishment streak, and he becomes deeply disillusioned by these political manipulations. And so years later, after he and Hearst have fallen out, "Citizen Kane" becomes a kind of revenge, a tragic, corrosive portrait of a man who gains a vast media empire and loses his soul. Once word gets out, Hearst and his Hollywood minions try to keep the movie from seeing the light of day. Mankiewicz's own brother, Joseph, who will one day write and direct his own Hollywood classic, "All About Eve," urges him not to bite the hand that used to feed him.
But Herman Mankiewicz doesn't back down, and Oldman's performance captures his complicated mix of affection and contempt for the industry that made and broke him. The actor lays bare Mankiewicz's vices, from his fondness for drinking and gambling to his neglect of his wife, Sara, played by Tuppence Middleton. He also shows us the man's underlying decency, whether he's condemning the fascist tide sweeping through 1930s Europe or mourning a close colleague who is chewed up and spat out by Hollywood.
Mankiewicz is ultimately both cynical and idealistic. He knows the toughness it takes to make personal art in a commercially driven medium and to get the recognition you deserve. "Mank" is a wondrous tribute to his fighting spirit.
COLLINS: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Mank," which is streaming on Netflix.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be veteran rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen. He didn't just shoot dozens of famous musicians, he traveled with many and drank with them into the wee hours. In a new book, he describes touring with the Sex Pistols, worrying once that Bob Dylan was about to hit him with a cane and his long friendship with John Lennon. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER GETS YOU THRU THE NIGHT")
JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Whatever gets you through the night, it's all right. It's all right. It's your money or your life. It's all right. It's all right. Don't need a sword to cut through flowers, oh, no, oh, no. Whatever gets you through your life, it's all right. It's all right...
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER GETS YOU THRU THE NIGHT")
LENNON: (Singing) Hold me, darlin'. Come on. Listen to me. I won't do you no harm... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.