At the beginning of F For for Fake, Orson Welles’ 1973 essay film about forgery, deception and lies, the filmmaker addresses the audience directly and sets out a thesis for what is to follow. ‘Tell it by the fireside or in a marketplace or in a movie,’ he says, ‘almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie.’ He promises that, over the course of the next hour, he’s going to give them the unvarnished truth.
David Fincher’s Mank is based on one Hollywood’s most discredited fictions: the idea that screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz was the real genius behind Citizen Kane and that Welles’ screenwriting credit and the Oscar that resulted from it were unearned. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) sums up the argument at the end of the film when, having skipped the Oscars ceremony, he addresses the press. ‘I am very happy to accept this award in the manner in which the screenplay was written,’ he says, ‘which is to say in the absence of Orson Welles.’
This version of events has been doing the rounds at least since 1971, when The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael published her book-length essay ‘Raising Kane’. That work has been widely debunked by historians—Kael deliberately ignored crucial archival material that might have called her conclusions into doubt—but nevertheless remains an important artefact from the great internecine war between American critics over auteur theory and its guiding principle: that the director is the principal author of a film.
Arguments over auteur theory have continued, with only slightly less virulence, over the years. It is now commonly accepted that a film’s author can be anyone—the producer, the screenwriter, the star when their wattage is high enough—as long as it’s that person’s vision that is central. (Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has long been discussed in these terms, even when working with filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Whatever you make of their quality, the films of actor-producers like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, or even Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell, might also be considered in this light.)
There can be no question that Mankiewicz’s work on Kane, with its unique structure and shifting points of view, was ground-breaking at the time, and that his contribution to the picture was essential. But Welles didn’t only rewrite the script on the page and on the fly on the set. He also wrote it on the screen: it was his use of cinematic technique—camera, lighting, staging, editing—that made the film the masterpiece it is. (As regards his use of the camera, and despite his reputation as a credit hog, Welles was always happy to highlight the innovative contributions of his cinematographer Gregg Toland.) One suspects that Mank avoids the production of Kane—one can revisit HBO’s rather better 1999 movie RKO 281 for a dramatisation of that—precisely to avoid having to face this reality.
Which is why, at first glance, it may seem odd that one of contemporary Hollywood’s most notable auteurs, David Fincher, should have wound up helming such an anti-auteur piece of revisionism. Or at least it may seem that way until one realises that the screenplay was written by Fincher’s late father. What strikes one, though, is the tension that exists at the heart of this act of filial devotion between the pro-Mankiewicz bent of Jack Fincher’s screenplay and the pro-Welles argument inherent in his son’s direction of it. For a film that argues the primacy of the screenwriter, Mank is directed to within an inch of its life, and directed what’s more in a style that continually calls attention to itself and the debt it owes to Kane.
In other words, it’s a work of homage, verging at times very close to pastiche. It’s in black-and-white, its score is lush, its credits are designed to recall the 1940s. Driving scenes employ back projection and one sequence, depicting a GOP election night party in 1934, recreates, with a flurry of dissolves and superimpositions, the look and feel of the optical printing techniques of the era. The introduction of Welles, emerging out of the shadows and appearing in slightly off-kilter close-up, feels like a deliberate evocation of his introduction as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
It’s all very clever—too clever, one might argue—and occasionally quite handsome, and it certainly suggests where Fincher’s sympathies ultimately lie. But it’s also empty, recalling Steven Soderbergh’s slavish recreation of the Classical Hollywood style in his 2006 film The Good German. In both cases, aside from the clinical archness of the filmmakers’ formal decisions, the problem is that the recreation of older styles seems to be motivated by little more than the technical challenge they represent, or else, worse, by a certain movie brat love of homage for its own sake. ‘Why black and white?’ Adrian Martin once asked in a 1994 review of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. ‘This is not an idle or arbitrary question.’ He went on to suggest—as one might of Scorsese’s fetishisation of bipack and three-strip Technicolor processes in The Aviator or Tarantino’s decision to shoot The Hateful Eight in 70mm—that it was driven by a ‘mania for pastiche, for movie-filtered emotion … [the] adolescent reflex’ of a filmmaker who was ‘more familiar with movies than with life, and who interpreted and rendered life accordingly, through the obedient quotation of a hundred beloved movies.’ There is more than a little of this tendency in Mank and its effect is not a desirable one.
The other problem is that Mankiewicz isn’t nearly as interesting as Charles Foster Kane and Fincher’s grandiloquent Wellesian style rather highlights this rather than negates it. Jack Fincher’s screenplay, itself borrowing from Kane in its heavy use of flashbacks, does its level best to build the screenwriter up into something more substantial than a booze-sodden hack, primarily by injecting him into a historical narrative he had approximately nothing to do with. This would be Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for the governorship of California, which saw the Pulitzer-winning author of The Jungle spreading the message of socialism, Bernie Sanders before his time, and raising the ire of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (a splenetic Arliss Howard). In reality, it was Mankiewicz’s brother, Joseph, who was active in the campaign, penning anti-Sinclair dramas for the radio. (Joe would go on to direct All About Eve, so he can’t be considered all bad.) Yet Mank goes so far as to suggest that Mankiewicz penned Citizen Kane as a way of getting back at Hearst for the anti-Sinclair bent of his newspapers. As with the matter of the Kane screenplay’s authorship, that the historical record doesn’t even begin to bear this out seems not to have mattered to anyone involved.
Indeed, it occasionally seems that the only accurate things about Mankiewicz covered by the film are his alcoholism, disregard for his wife, and an uncanny ability to ruin a good dinner party. It is at best blasé and at worst reactionary in the face of all three shortcomings. Following hot on the heels of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, which itself played a dangerous game with the relationship between substance abuse and genius, Mank leans heavily into the romantic ideal of the alcoholic but brilliant writer. Not only does it suggest that Mankiewicz was only capable of finishing Kane because he was three sheets to the wind (he has the sauce smuggled into a rehab facility where the nurses are on his side), it also seems to be arguing that the quality of the work justified his excesses and their costs to others. At one point, Mankiewicz asks his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) why she sticks with him. ‘I suppose because being married to you, Herman, I’m never bored,’ she replies. ‘Exhausted, yes. Exasperated, usually. But having devoted so much, I have to stick around to see how it all turns out.’ One can imagine Mary Hemingway having once said something similar. She stuck around to see as well. The fact that Mankiewicz died in 1953 from uremic poisoning is afforded the usual, obligatory title card at the end of the film. It appears superimposed over a freeze frame of the man and his hard-won Oscar. The argument seems clear: in the end, it was worth it. Fincher’s style is not the only thing about the film that properly belongs to a bygone era. The one thing Mank gets right, it gets wrong.
Obviously, there is a question to be asked as to whether or not accuracy is really the point when it comes to a film like this. It isn’t as though movies based on historical events don’t regularly play fast and loose with the truth. It is nevertheless a question that’s being asked with increasing regularity these days as we navigate the waters of our post-truth age. Netflix recently resisted pressure to add a disclaimer to the beginning of each episode of The Crown, claiming in a statement that ‘we have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events’. This came after everyone from Princess Diana’s brother to one of the show’s own stars, Helena Bonham Carter, had wondered aloud in the press whether it mightn’t be a good idea. When Netflix released Mank in December, amidst a flurry of publicity befitting its status as the company’s latest black-and-white, auteur-helmed tilt at a Best Picture Oscar, it, too, came without such a disclaimer. Given The Crown is now dealing with very recent history, and most of the real-life players are still alive, Bonham Carter suggested that the company had ‘a moral responsibility’ to draw a line between fact and fiction. Does this responsibility magically disappear when the players are all dead and the events one’s depicting far enough in the past? Does one not have a moral responsibility to avoid rehashing debunked history and discredited scholarship? Netflix may have confidence in its members to understand what is and isn’t a work of fiction. But I’ve seen the videos debunking the moon landing, 9/11, and everything else in between.
What perhaps makes the least sense about Mank‘s approach towards history is that real life is often dramatic enough without having to be fictionalised. This was the complaint of many critics when the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was released in cinemas in 2018. Mercury’s life was plenty interesting already, they argued, without the filmmakers deliberately muddying the timeline so his HIV positive diagnosis predated Queen’s famous appearance at Live Aid. Even apparently flippant depictions of historical figures, such as AppleTV+’s Dickinson and Hulu’s The Great, manage to work with the actual content of their chosen figures’ lives, and, when they don’t, at least go to the effort of signposting it. (The Great’s title cards describe it as ‘an occasionally true story’.) If Jack Fincher felt the need to make Mankiewicz more interesting than he was, crediting him with sole authorship of a screenplay he didn’t write alone and bestowing upon him political convictions there is no evidence of him having acted upon, perhaps Mankiewicz wasn’t worth writing about in the first place. Perhaps fiction might have made more sense. At least Mankiewicz had the sense—for artistic as well as legal reasons—to transform Hearst into Kane.
Ironically, Welles might have appreciated all this, these lies and fabrications and misguided inventions, however short a shrift the film ultimately affords him. As F for Fake draws to a close, the man who once sparked a national panic with his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds addresses the audience one more time, coming clean. ‘I did promise that for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth,’ he says. ‘That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.’