David Fincher's black-and-white drama transports us back to 1930s Hollywood, where alcoholic screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) – nicknamed "Mank – is commissioned to write a script about a newspaper man for rising star Orson Welles (Tom Burke). The film explores the politics and power dynamics of the studio system and how Mank's distaste with media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) inspired Welles' 1941 masterpiece "Citizen Kane" and its titular character, the tortured billionaire tycoon Charles Foster Kane (also played by Welles).
After watching "Mank," we called up two Hollywood historians to discuss what's real and what isn't in Netflix's sumptuously crafted awards contender.
Orson Welles was responsible for making 'Citizen Kane' what it is
Who “actually” wrote “Citizen Kane” has been a subject of debate among film scholars for decades, and “Mank” unsurprisingly sides with its title character. At the beginning of the movie, Mank agrees to write a first draft for Orson Welles without writing credit, understanding that Welles will likely rewrite most of it. But by the end of the film, Mank realizes this is the best script he’s ever written and demands co-writing credit, leading to a heated confrontation with Welles. The two eventually share an Oscar win for best original screenplay, but still feud in the press in the final coda of "Mank."
Historians have read Mank’s drafts, and “it would have been a very tired, sort of standard Hollywood biography about a rich man whining about his life, and that’s exactly what Orson Welles did not want to do,” says Harlan Lebo, author of "Citizen's Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey." Charles Foster Kane’s motivations and consequences “really emerged when Welles started work on it, and there were important scenes that were never in any draft that Welles wrote later during production.”
“So sure, Herman Mankiewicz absolutely had a role in making ‘Citizen Kane’ and he put down those first words,” Lebo continues. “But other than that, it became Orson Welles’ project and that's what makes it great.”