“If you think that you can direct a movie and not in some way show your hand as to who you are, you’re nuts,” the Mank filmmaker told The Atlantic.
David Fincher’s new film, Mank,begins with a title card announcing the arrival of one of cinema’s first real auteurs. “In 1940, at the tender age of 24, Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures with a contract befitting his formidable storytelling talents,” it reads. “He was given absolute creative autonomy, would suffer no oversight, and could make any movie, about any subject, with any collaborator he wished.” Then the score’s ominous piano notes kick in, as if Hollywood is greeting this proclamation of artistic control with dread.
Mank, however, isn’t about the famed director who went on to make Citizen Kane. It’s about a man who spent a short but pivotal time in Welles’s orbit: Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane. A lowly scriptwriter might seem like a curious subject for Fincher, one of cinema’s best-known filmmakers, whose reputation for exacting attention to detail and on-set rigor is unmatched. And there’s a sweet sort of irony to the fact that this modern-day auteur’s first film about moviemaking spotlights a Hollywood gadfly who had to fight to be recognized for his contribution to a masterpiece. But in some ways, Fincher has been waiting almost 30 years to make Mank, which feels steeped in his observations of, and grievances with, the movie industry.
The genesis of Citizen Kane has long been a matter of furious debate among cinephiles, a proving ground for arguments about directorial auteurism versus greater collaboration. But that thread is of secondary importance to Mank, which debuts on Netflix today. “I was never interested in the idea of who wrote [Citizen Kane],” Fincher told me. “What interested me was, here’s a character who, like a billiard ball or pinball, sort of bounced around in this town that he, by all accounts, seemed to loathe, doing a job that he seemed to feel was beneath him. And then for one brief, shining moment, he stood his ground because—and I feel that this is entirely due to Welles—he was given an opportunity to do his best work.”