24 Lies a Second: Citizen Caned

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Citizen Caned

They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news). Perhaps it's just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I've been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn't release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year's Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher's Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz's career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz's personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst's by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film's thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles' film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz's motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix's motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked. One of the best bets is the box marked 'Make Film About Hollywood Itself' (the 'Shoot In Black And White For Added Arty Gravitas' box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film's favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what's still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane's greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What's particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst's palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane's retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz's name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn't really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It's not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz's legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn't brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter's alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the 'history' presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn't made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It's a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex issue.

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