The true story behind Mank: how accurate is David Fincher’s new film?

The movie tells of the writing of Orson Welles' iconic Golden Age film Citizen Kane.

Mank

Six years on from the release of his last film, David Fincher has returned with a new movie – one which focuses on the writing of Orson Welles’ iconic Golden Age film Citizen Kane.

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Mank debuts on Netflix on Friday 4th December, with a stellar cast bringing some key figures to life, including Gary Oldman as Herman J Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Tom Burke as Orson Welles.

The film is adapted from a script written by Fincher’s late father Jack, but how closely does it stick to the truth? Read on for everything you need to know.

How accurate is Mank?

As with most biographical films, Mank contains portions of both fact and fiction.

The main thrust of the film is concerned with exploring the truth about who was responsible for writing Citizen Kane, with the film making the argument that Herman J Mankiewicz was cheated out of full writing credit by Orson Welles.

However, the film also delves into a rather different matter, making connections with the unsuccessful 1934 campaign of American writer Upton Sinclair (played in the film by none other than Bill Nye the Science Guy), who ran for Governor in California running under the banner of the End Poverty in California campaign.

Who was Herman J Mankiewicz?

Gary Oldman in Mank
Gary Oldman in Mank
Netflix

The surname Mankiewicz is an especially prominent one in Hollywood – Herman’s brother Joseph was the writer-director of All About Eve and Guys and Dolls among others, while his nephew Tom wrote several James Bond films including Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die.

Herman himself – or Mank as he was known – was a screenwriter, who was once described as the  “funniest man in New York” and worked on a string of highly influential and beloved films aside from Citizen Kane, including The Wizard of Oz, Man of the World, Dinner at Eight, Pride of the Yankees, and The Pride of St. Louis.

The film’s portrayal of Mank seems to be largely accurate: in his book The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926–1930, film historian Scott Eyman says Mankiewicz was “a hard-drinking gambler” and he was also known to havea scathing wit, with remarks sometimes losing him friends and jobs in Hollywood.

Who was Upton Sinclair?

Upton Sinclair Runs For Governor
The real Upton Sinclair in 1934
Bettmann / Getty Images

The 1934 race for California governor came at a crucial point, five years into The Great Depression. One of the contenders, Upton Sinclair, was a writer and socialist whose work had already sparked reform and who wrote a manifesto in the shape of a book titled, not immodestly,  I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. Despite securing the Democrat nomination, he ultimately lost out to the Republican incumbent Frank Merriam.

The events portrayed in the film relating to Sinclair’s campaign are all factual, including the strong efforts to stop him from gaining power, which saw the likes of film producer and California Republican chairman Louis B Mayer rally around Merriam and encourage his workers to donate to him.

Several writers refused to donate – however, there is no evidence to suggest that Mank was one of them. It is also true, as shown in the film, that Irving Thalberg produced several fake propagandistic news reels to aid Merriam’s campaign, but the suggestion that Mank accidentally inspired these does not appear to be based on reality, nor is the character Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) who is a total invention.

The connection between Sinclair and Herman J Mankiewicz was therefore largely created for the screenplay – which doesn’t go into too much depth about Mank’s actually rather complicated conservative-leaning politics. There is no evidence to suggest that Mank was a Sinclair supporter or that he harboured a grudge about his defeat.

Nevertheless, other aspects of his politics portrayed in the film are based on true life: he did sponsor refugees, although not quite to the extent displayed in the movie.

Who really wrote Citizen Kane?

And so we come to the main point of the movie: who was actually responsible for writing the iconic movie? This has been a point of contention for a long time, and although we are never likely to know for sure, there are a couple of things that seem to be generally agreed upon.

Mankiewicz and Welles first met and began working together in 1939, and following a car accident that saw Mank break his leg in three places, he closed himself off at a ranch in Victorville, California, to write a rough draft for what would become Citizen Kane. He later signed a contract giving up his claim to a writing credit but then changed his mind, resulting in a bitter dispute which eventually saw him handed a credit.

But despite the joint credit, Mank wasn’t happy – he continued to argue that he was the sole writer and that Welles had had no influence on the script. However, Welles argued that there were actually two separate drafts for the script, Mank’s one and another one written solely by himself. It’s generally agreed now that Welles’ contributions were vastly important – as were those of several others whose part in the production was invaluable.

Given the disputed nature of events, then, it’s hard to state for certain how close Mank sticks to the facts, but one thing that’s for sure is that the film firmly takes Mank’s side. The reality, in all probability, is far more complicated than the movie suggests – and it’s likely that it will continue to be debated a long time after Mank arrives on Netflix.

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Mank is streaming on Netflix from Friday 4th December 2020. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide