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IndieWire’s Guide to ‘Mank’: 25 People and Places in David Fincher’s Historical Epic Explained


David Fincher's movie is filled with complex reference points — some real, others imagined. Confused about what to believe? Come here for answers.

Gary Oldman in “Mank”

[Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers about the plot of “Mank.”]

“Mank” is a lot to take in. Diehard fans of classic Hollywood cinema and “Citizen Kane” obsessives alike may be well-suited to parse David Fincher’s complex portrait of world-weary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, but even then, this intricate black-and-white drama draws on a lot of reference points that a many audience members may not grasp the first time around.

The movie tracks two dueling narratives: Mank’s experiences in Hollywood throughout the ’30s, as he undergoes a falling out with Hollywood and studio moguls over their politics, and his decision to use his experiences in that world to write his greatest work — inspired by his former proximity to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who became the template for the affluent mystery at the center of “Citizen Kane.”

But there’s more to “Mank” than that: Fincher, who draws on a script written decades ago by his late father Jack, has created a complex window into a bygone era where movies were king. Viewers who come out of the movie with questions about the movie’s expansive world should peruse this guide, as IndieWire writers have collected 25 people and places that give “Mank” its historical polish. We’ve consulted with historians, combed through history books, and compared fact with fiction to come up with the following breakdown. We encourage you to watch the movie first, then come here to keep the experience going.


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Mank Heads to the Victorville Ranch

According to Pauline Kael, in early 1940, Mank spent three months at Mrs. Campbell’s Guest Ranch in Victorville, California, 65 miles from Los Angeles, writing his loose adaptation of Hearst’s, for $500 a week. He was still hobbling around from a September car crash that broke his leg in three places (compounded by a later drunken accident at Chasen’s). At first, the bedridden Mankiewicz wrote five scripts for Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio show, and then, in late January, the director brought the writer to Victorville, attended by dictation secretary Rita Alexander, a German nurse, and Welles lieutenant John Houseman, who stayed in the same liquor-free compound, not a separate hotel, with a supply of “Mickey Finns” (chemical-laced drinks which failed to make Mank hate alcohol). —AT

“Citizen Kane” Easter Eggs

Without overstating it, Fincher has fun throughout “Mank” making visual connections between his film and “Citizen Kane.” The Easter eggs are as obvious as ice sculptures (an elephant ice sculpture seen during the “Mank” gubernatorial election nods to the various “Citizen Kane” ice sculptures) and as subtle as using a dining room table as a visual metaphor. In “Citizen Kane,” the deteriorating marriage between Charles Foster Kane and his wife is summed up in a scene where the two characters are blocked on opposite ends of their long dining room table. Fincher adopts a similar visual strategy during a climactic dinner sequence in which Mank shows up drunk to William Randolph Hearst’s mansion. It’s the definitive moment in the film where Mank is rejected from Hearst’s close circle, and Fincher marks the occasion by having Mank move further away from Hearst at the table until he’s sitting on the opposite end, just like Kane and his wife.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by RKO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886150bt)Citizen Kane (1941)Citizen Kane - 1941Director: Orson WellesRKOUSAScene StillDrama

“Citizen Kane”


The film’s most blatant visual connection is in the trailer: Mank drops a liquor pottle out of his hand and it rolls onto the floor. The camera movement and editing mimics the famous moment in “Citizen Kane” where Charles Foster Kane drops the snow globe of his childhood home and it rolls onto the floor. —ZS

Upton Sinclair’s Gubernatorial Campaign

Some might be surprised at the pronounced role that Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign plays in the second half of “Mank,” but Fincher’s film regards the muckraker’s loss to the studio-backed Republican Frank Merriam — and the failure of his End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement along with it — as the moment that forever soured Herman J. Mankiewicz against Hollywood self-interest, and inspired the screenwriter to sharpen “Citizen Kane” into a scathing profile of power’s corruptive influence. A “radical” Socialist who rebranded his public works programs in a way that appealed to hundreds of thousands of hungry and work-starved post-Depression Californians, Sinclair might have won the election and helped the state out of poverty if not for the fear-mongering conservative backlash to his campaign, which (in timeless American fashion) pained Sinclair as a Communist and claimed that he would allow Los Angeles to be overrun by migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl.

As we see in “Mank,” Hollywood studios helped spearhead the effort to muddy Sinclair’s image, with MGM forcing its employees to contribute to Merriam and staging anti-Sinclair ads that wielded the power of the movies as a cudgel against change. It’s Mankiewicz’s resistance to these efforts that make the boozehound into the bumbling hero of his own film, as he rejects MGM production head Irving Thalberg’s (Ferdinand Kingsley) attempt to strong-arm him into a donation, and ruefully laments how Tinseltown is abusing the thrall its pictures cast over the public imagination. “You can make the world swear King Kong is 10 stories tall and Mary Pickford a virgin at 40,” the ever-sarcastic Mankiewicz sneers at his boss, “but you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear? You’re barely trying.” The screenwriter saw himself reflected in Sinclair’s idealism, and he refused to let go of it no matter the cost. If that made him into an organ-grinder’s monkey instead of a mogul, well, at least he became an Oscar-winning organ-grinder’s monkey before he died. —DE 

About Those Shorts…

Thalberg did greenlight and produce the phony newsreels, which were attached to MGM films that played in theaters around California, and featured “interviews” with “real people” singing the praises of their chosen candidate. The Sinclair fans were portrayed as free-loading foreigners and blue collar dumb-dumbs, while his opponent Frank Merriam snagged high-class, financially savvy people (mostly white).

Slate even dug up one of them, which you can watch right here. Presented as “California Election News,” it’s easy to see why said newsreels were viewed and accepted as, well, real news. They weren’t, of course — they were the creation of a savvy businessman intent on using everything at his disposal (even public trust) to sow disinformation to millions. Sound familiar? —KE

The Rise (and Horrible Fall) of Shelly Metcalf



“Mank” does, however, take some liberties with those newsreels in other ways. In the film, the shorts are directed by test shot director Shelly Metcalf (played by Jamie McShane) who took on the gig because it was a) straight from Thalberg and b) he hoped it might catapult him into actual directing for the studio. In Fincher’s film, the results are far more tragic: Metcalf, also a drunk who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, is horrified when the newsreels are released and assumes responsibility for Sinclair’s gubernatorial loss. In one of the film’s more wrenching moments, Metcalf kills himself over the whole affair, taking his life in his MGM office.

That’s mostly fiction. As Slate reports, while Thalberg’s newsreels really were directed by a test shot director eager to make a professional leap, his name was actually Felix Feist Jr., and he didn’t suffer the same consequences as the made-up Metcalf. “His conscience seems to have been untroubled and his ploy worked: He directed short films throughout the 1930s before stepping up to features in the 1940s, moving on to television in the 1950s. He died of natural causes in 1965,” Slate reports. Feist was best known for film noirs like “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” and “The Threat” and the boxing drama “The Golden Gloves Story.” Fun fact: he directed a pre-Ronald Reagan Nancy Davis in “Donovan’s Brain,” the second adaptation of the popular Curt Siodmak story. —KE

Hollywood Used to Be Republican

Louis B. Mayer was hardly the only one fighting to defeat Upton Sinclair. All the studio bosses rallied together to protect their bottom-line, with only Jack Warner having to cross the political aisle to do so. Democrats were a distinct minority in Hollywood power circles, but like a lot of things, that changed in the 1930s. The only reason FDR did not come to California to save Sinclair from Mayer and co.’s slander was because their golden boy, eventual Republican Governor Merriman, had already cut a backroom deal to support the Democratic President’s New Deal, a massive expansion of the federal government that was in the spirit of Sinclair’s “communist” EPIC plan. The 1934 election captured in “Mank” wasn’t simply a turning point for Fincher’s protagonist; liberals throughout Hollywood were outraged by how MGM used the sacred pre-feature newsreel to generate fake news. In the years that followed, Hollywood began to unionize and fight to wrestle power away from the conservatives controlling the industry.  —CO

Lionel Barrymore Defends MGM Paycuts

One of Louis B. Mayer’s signature moments in “Mank” occurs when he informs MGM’s contracted employees that anyone making over $50 a week will receive a 50% pay cut in an attempt to sustain the studio amid the Great Depression. The sequence as depicted in “Mank” is factual. After an MGM screenwriter challenged Mayer’s order and expressed confusion over why a successful studio would need pay cuts, Lionel Barrymore came to Mayer’s defense and criticized the writer for not being a team player. Barrymore’s defense encouraged other MGM employees to agree with the salary cuts (“Don’t worry, L.B. We’re with you,” Barrymore says in the film — which is accurate, according to Miranda J. Banks’ book “The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild”). The catch was that Mayer himself was not taking any pay cut, although he surely didn’t make it seem that way during the meeting with MGM staff. Mayer touted the only way to save MGM through the Depression would be for everyone to have a salary cut. In “Mank,” Mayer is seen shedding a fake tear to play up his remorse over the pay cuts. —ZS

Hollywood Moves to…Florida?

In “Mank” there are rumors floating around Hollywood that the studios are moving to Florida. In fact, that was exactly what Louis B. Mayer and the studio bosses threatened to do if Upton Sinclair was elected California Governor. “What would they do about the mosquitos?” retorted Sinclair. “I have lived in Florida…right in the middle of a scene, one would bite the lady star on the nose and cost them fifty thousand dollars.”  —CO

Pitch Session Pals: SJ Perelman

When Mank goes into Louis B. Mayer’s office and briefly meets a handful of pipe-smoking screenwriters who acknowledge him with a sage glance, one is “Sid Perelman.” The moment is the blink-and-you-miss feature debut of actor Jack Romano, but it’s also a nod to the Marx Bros. “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” to the Algonquin Round Table, to the first surrealist comic writer, and to the future Oscar winner for “Around the World in 80 Days”: S.J. Perelman. He also wrote more than two dozen books of short prose that earned him admiration from T.S. Eliot and Somerset Maugham (and, yes, Woody Allen), loved to make up words, twist phrases, and satirize anything that moved. Most of his works are out of print, but you can easily buy them at used bookstores. If you’re looking for an original gift for the Fincher completist, or a fan of great satire, you can’t go wrong. —DH

Pitch Session Pals: David O. Selznick

In that same pitch session, legendary producer David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) looms large with rising director Josef von Sternberg (Paul Fox) and the story team led by Herman and his prestigious recruits from Broadway. But the fictional spitball session — a highfalutin Universal monster riff  — rings false for the ambitious von Sternberg (who had just begun his remarkable Hollywood run with Marlene Dietrich), and for its depiction of Selznick (“Gone with the Wind”) as an illiterate producer, who doesn’t know the meaning of fabricate. “That’s not Selznick,” said Sydney Ladensohn Stern, author of “The Brothers Mankiewicz.” “He was very literate and very interested in history, and he socialized with Herman [and brought him to MGM in 1933 as supervising producer]. The people they put in there was for the fun of having recognizable faces.” —BD


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