Citizen Kane (1941) / MANK (2020)
I’m a bit nervous writing anything about this, the greatest film ever made. I mean, is it? Like any film it’s personal taste, I mean some people like Michael Bay films or so I’m told. I think most will agree though that Orson Welles’ debut masterpiece is indeed something quite special. Following Welles’ War of the Worlds production, his notoriety got him a gig with RKO, even granting him unheard final cut rights. They trusted him and were right to do so. Kane is wonderfully put together. Exciting from the start with its newsreel style exposition introducing Kane, the powerful, wealthy, ostentatious media mogul recently deceased. It’s dizzying stuff, as we speed through Kane’s rise and fall, in politics, relationships and business. He’s not all that likeable. It’s a crafty device. We feel like we already know who Kane was... great, we’re done! Well no, not quite. This is the point, all that stuff is surface, the touch points of a remarkable life sure, but does it really tell you all about a person? The seed is planted in a dark room, suits in shadows pondering this very notion. What more is there hiding in the Kane story and that one word spoken on his death bed, “Rosebud”. Toland’s cinematography is beautiful, Herrmann’s score wonderfully evocative. The ageing make up, a credit to the art department that do a remarkable job. It’s Welles’ film though. There’s a control here that’s masterful. Bonkers for a debut. This story sprawls, both in time and the structure of its narrative. Young Charles Kane is given the chance to leave behind his rustic roots and grow up in the splendour and riches offered by the bank looking after the oil on which his family home rests. It’s a wrenching and pivotal scene that marks Charles to the core of who he’s to become. Welles is incredible, magnetic and magnificent. For all the bluster of that newsreel introduction, he portrays Kane as the maverick hero, disinterested in the trappings of wealth and hell bent on being “Everything you (the establishment) hate”. I love the way the story jumps back and forth through time, slowly filling in more details, adding meat to the bones. The players becoming narrators. With Kane’s right hand men Leland (Joseph Cotton) and Bernstein (Everette Sloane), both equally charming. This structure was innovative at the time, long before Tarantino started buggering about with chronology in the 90s. There’s little light shed on the mysterious Rosebud and little importance put on it. A mere curiosity that underpins the life story of a man losing his way, his focus, his passion and stamina or at least redirecting it. A story of power, politics, media and manipulation. Quite timely really. Not least with headlines like “Fraud at the polls” as Kane’s political ambitions falter. A rapid rise, followed by a reflective fall. There’s a lot going on. It’s this I wonder what makes Citizen Kane feel so groundbreaking. Made in an era where gloss and happy endings ruled the silver screen, Kane offers so much more than the epic melodrama. It’s dark, full of mood and sadness, honesty and humour. The slow finale, feels like the last labouring breathes after an exciting sprint. It’s not dull, it’s a lovely exercise in perfect pacing, right down to the last breath... Rosebud. I’m not sure any words can do it justice. Certainly not mine. If you’ve not seen it, seek it out. I guarantee you’ll love it.
So it’s agreed Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. It made Welles famous and infamous. Directing, Producing, Starring and writing. The writing was a joint(ish) effort though. Shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. He rarely gets a mention and this is perhaps why Fincher has chosen to tell his story in Mank and however this turns out I’ll forgive it for giving me reason to watch Kane again. The writing of Kane is a well known topic with any cinephile. Welles is known for taking the credit. Mank had to fight for his credit with RKO and eventually got second billing, despite being responsible for the genesis of the screenplay. It’s true though that Welles brought a lot to the table, adding his own scenes and more than likely crafting it in a manner that Mank would never have taken it... maybe. Who knows? This is all a bit of guesswork. Everyone tells their own story, but it’s certain Mank doesn’t get the praise he rightly deserves. Back to the film. First of all it has to be noted that this is gorgeous to look at. It’s made in a classic 40s style and I’m staggered at how well it works. Surely it’s shot in black and white and hasn’t be graded? I’ll have to find out, but either way it’s absolutely beautiful. The sound too, there’s a subtle tone that makes it feel like it was captured on arcane equipment on a sound stage, it’s lovely. Now I left out the origins of Citizen Kane in my review of that film. Knowing that much of that would be covered here. The inspiration for Kane’s character was a friend of Mank’s, William Hearst, played here by Charles Dance. But I’m jumping ahead, Mank (Gary Oldman) is set the task of creating a screenplay in 60 days by Welles (Tom Burke... who nails the voice), but before that... are you spotting a theme? Yes, we’ve a fluid timeline a la Kane. It works well here, in fact I think it would suffer if it were simplified. It playfully skips around, introducing characters and the Hollywood machine. Mank is a player, but an alcoholic one. The lovable drunk with a head full of ideas. Citizen Kane is a life story in 2 hours and this is the same. It doesn’t compare, Mank himself doesn’t have the range of the fictional Kane. But back to the inspiration. Hearst may have been Mank’s starting point, but the character grew, thought now to be an amalgamation of up to four people, Kane came to life on the page, both Mank’s and Welles’. It’s quite remarkable it feels coherent with so many cooks. I guess Welles’ final cut status helped, both in pulling it all together so well and fortifying his creative genius mantel, albeit at the expense of Mankiewicz. It’s good to see the focus on Mank here though. Welles is a bit part. This essentially tells the story of Mank’s world, his experiences and how he brought that to Citizen Kane, with hefty doses of the political undercurrent that surrounds Mank and how they subtly manipulate Kane’s fiction. “Write what you know”. Oldham is fantastic as the poetic plain talking writer. Sticking to his political guns, even at the sake of his career as we build to a fitting finale. It’s dramatic and entertaining, with several memorable set pieces, namely whenever Oldham is let loose with a monologue. I don’t imagine that this is for everyone though. On its own it’d struggle, only with the context and a love of Kane, could you love this. I don’t love it, but I did really like it. In fact, I could happily watch it again right now. A movie for movie lovers.