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Story Of The Man Who Wrote 'Citizen Kane': David Fincher's 'Mank' Reviewed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hollywood loves a good story about Hollywood, so critic Bob Mondello says it should love "Mank," the story of the man who wrote "Citizen Kane."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We meet Herman Mankiewicz in 1940 as he and his broken leg are being settled into a secluded California cabin. Producer John Houseman is with him, aiming to keep him away from booze as he writes. Orson Welles is on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

TOM BURKE: (As Orson Welles) Houseman tells me we have you just where we want you.

GARY OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Lucky me.

BURKE: (As Orson Welles) How's the leg?

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Thighbone's connected to the...

BURKE: (As Orson Welles) Hip bone.

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Excellent.

BURKE: (As Orson Welles) I understand we have 90 days.

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Let's aim for 60.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's just got a month.

BURKE: (As Orson Welles) I'm toiling with you in spirit, Mank. And I don't hear any typing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE HANGING UP)

BURKE: (As Orson Welles) And then he turns 24.

MONDELLO: Gary Oldman's Mank will let his assistant, Rita, do the typing as he dictates a story of wealth and power undone centered on a man...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) ...In a robe, smoking a pipe...

MONDELLO: ...Who more than mildly resembles newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Narration - an emperor of newsprint...

MONDELLO: And while he's doing that, the film starts jumping around in time, just like the script he's crafting, back to when a much-in-demand Mank was forever popping onto movie sets, including one for a Western where Hearst was directing his mistress, Marion Davies, she awaiting the cavalry, tied to a stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Well, what's at stake here?

AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Marion Davies) We met at John Gilbert's birthday. You're Herman Mankiewicz.

OLDMAN: (As Herman Mankiewicz) Guilty. And I remember you, Ms. Davies, regaling us with stories about dodging trolley cars in Brooklyn. Your Flatbush was showing.

MONDELLO: A few more quips, and he's invited to dinner at San Simeon as a sort of Hearst household court jester, with no one the wiser that they're becoming screenplay fodder. Director David Fincher films all of this in silvery black and white with plenty of Hollywood lore.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're not to let the brothers Marx wait in my office ever. They've been grilling hot dogs again.

MONDELLO: And frequent shoutouts to the movie he's celebrating - a whiskey bottle dropping from Mank's hand, say, in a shot much like the one where a snow globe slipped from Kane's.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Mr. Mankiewicz...

MONDELLO: And where "Citizen Kane" has a leading lady who's a would-be opera singer, "Mank" has spoken soliloquies that play like arias. Studio head Louis B. Mayer delivers a gloriously showy one while trotting from his office to an MGM soundstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

ARLISS HOWARD: (As Louis B. Mayer) People think MGM stands for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It does not. It stands for Mayer's (non-English language spoken) - Mayer's whole family. Never forget that. You got a problem, come to papa.

MONDELLO: Folks in "Mank" talk a lot about family. Herman's brother, Joe Mankiewicz, on the receiving end of this particular rant, went on to make "All About Eve." Mank's son Frank Mankiewicz grew up to be one of the first presidents of NPR, which has absolutely nothing to do with the film. I'm just saying. Mank's connection to Marion Davies came through her nephew - all of which gets extra resonance from the fact that "Mank's" director, David Fincher, is working from a script written by his late father, Jack. And a quip-spewing, name-dropping, time-fracturing marvel it is, even if there's a lot of it - a complaint that Jack Fincher preemptively notes was also leveled at "Kane's" script.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) It's 327 pages - a far too long screenplay for the ages.

MONDELLO: Oldman's perpetually slozzled (ph) Mank is a treat, as is Amanda Seyfried's smarter-than-she-lets-on Marion Davies. And speaking of smart, there's a prescient plot thread about a gazillionaire-funded disinformation campaign waged with fake film clips.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MANK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You don't believe a Democrat would protect your way of life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Well, that man is a socialist...

MONDELLO: Real life in 1934 scripted by Jack Fincher in 1997 for a movie released in 2020, where darned if it doesn't sound fresh all over again in "Mank," a black-and-white portrait of Hollywood's golden age that's all about moral, political and personal shades of gray.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN JAY AND JOSH TAYLOR'S "EASE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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