“She picks the guy who is the epitome of the auteur in America and tears down his one great achievement that everybody can agree on,” said Joseph McBride, who wrote three books on Welles and acted for him in “The Other Side of the Wind,” a film belatedly completed in 2018. “But there’s a misunderstanding about the auteur theory, too.” The French critics who devised it “were accounting mostly for directors who didn’t write scripts, like Raoul Walsh, and how they could put their imprint on films that they hadn’t written.”
That point is made in “Mank,” when Welles (Tom Burke) angrily responds to Mankiewicz’s demand for credit by saying, “Ask yourself, who’s producing this picture, directing it, starring in it?” The critic Andrew Sarris, in an April 1971 retort to Kael’s essay, noted that even if Mankiewicz had written every word, Welles was no less the auteur of “Citizen Kane” than he was of his 1942 adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” whose “best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington.”
While Urbanski said that Kael’s argument had been discredited by historians, he added: “You could equally say that our film is 100 percent accurate if, and here’s the if, you accept that you’re looking at it through Herman Mankiewicz’s alcoholic perspective, because that changes everything.” Mankiewicz, he said, was the “motor” of a movie that functions on several layers.
McBride, who defended moviemakers’ right to dramatic leeway, nevertheless views “Mank” as a gross distortion and a missed opportunity to capture what was already an interesting relationship between Mankiewicz and Welles.
“They both worked on it, they both contributed their talents and they were better working together than they were alone,” he said. “You could show that. It wouldn’t detract from Mankiewicz’s genius and Welles’s genius.”
To Fincher, the point of “Mank” isn’t who wrote what. He said through a representative: “It was not my interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration. I was interested in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind. That was interesting to me.”