David Fincher’s new Netflix movie Mank feels like an invitation to a natural double feature. The film follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) on the emotional journey involved in writing 1941’s Citizen Kane, particularly his fraught relationships with the people who inspired it. Watching it back-to-back with the actual Citizen Kane makes a lot of things about Mank clearer, from the reasons Mankiewicz’s finished draft horrifies so many people to why Fincher structures the film the way he does, chopping up key scenes into flashbacks and flash-forwards. But the window for people to find Citizen Kane on the services they’re already paying for is closing: it’s leaving TCM’s streaming service on Dec. 10, and leaving HBO Max on Dec. 31.
Granted, it’ll still be available for paid digital rental on Amazon, Redbox, Vudu, and other services, but subscribers to services that currently have Citizen Kane may want to get the most bang for their buck while they can. And they may even want to make time to watch Kane before and after Mank, because it’s not only so enlightening about what’s going on in Mank, it’s also shockingly entertaining.
Citizen’s Kane’s longstanding reputation as the Best Film Ever (AFI’s number one pick for best American movie, and so forth) has also given it a reputation as a stodgy piece of eat-your-cultural-vegetables required viewing, but the film is a lot livelier, weirder, and more entertaining than that stereotype suggests. Orson Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a man whose inherited wealth gives him the freedom to try whatever he wants, from journalism to politics to producing operas. The film jumps back and forth in time, opening with Kane’s death in a decrepit, unfinished estate, then attempting to reconstruct him through the stories other people remember about him, from his smug-firebrand youth to his disastrous marriages. Along the way, it takes in some comically large and intimidating rooms, a sweet but doomed and ill-advised romance, and a pugnacious kid who uses a sled as a weapon.
Mank draws some of its structure from that story, and also a good deal of its dramatic impact. Fincher’s story tracks how Mankiewicz comes to know and despise mogul William Randolph Hearst (played by Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance) while enjoying a softer relationship with Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). But the film doesn’t much address how Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane script portrays Hearst, or another character who shares some biographical details with Davies, though Mankiewicz keeps insisting the character doesn’t represent her. It’s possible to infer some of the details from Mank’s story and from people’s reactions, but Fincher largely assumes people know how Kane plays out, and why it’s a blacklisting-worthy scandal when Mankiewicz expresses his true feelings in his writing.
The only problem with watching Citizen Kane and Mank back to back is that it may make viewers think less of Mank. Fincher’s black-and-white cinematography isn’t nearly as sharp, and the imagery isn’t as innovative and surprising. Mank’s emotions and conflicts feel smaller and pettier, and the choppy cutting feels more like copycatting than like something the narrative needed. But the two films still inform each other in interesting ways, and they’re more satisfying together. For those who’ve never gotten around to Kane, this is a particularly good time to dig in.