Producers: Ceán Chaffin, Eric Roth and Douglas Urbanski   Director: David Fincher   Screenplay: Jack Fincher   Cast: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Joseph Cross, Jamie McShane, Tony Leonard Moore, Monika Gossmann, Charles Dance, Leven Rambin, Bill Nye and Jeff Harms   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: B

It’s unlikely that the most people who watch David Fincher’s elegantly crafted new film will care overmuch about who should be credited for the screenplay of “Citizen Kane,” even if they have seen that 1941 masterpiece, and even if they admire it as much as the critics who have regularly chosen it as one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest of them all.  But that’s the subject of “Mank,” which Fincher has made from a script written by his father Jack in the 1990s. (At least there can be no doubt who wrote this screenplay; the director has made that abundantly clear by giving his father sole, unqualified credit, though some revisions were reportedly made to it by producer Eric Roth.)

But the “authorship” of “Citizen Kane” has been a matter of controversy since the film was released, winning only one Oscar in 1942—for the screenplay, no less.  The award went jointly to Orson Welles, the twenty-five year old wunderkind whose first film it was after his triumphs on Broadway and radio, and veteran Hollywood writer Herman J. Mankiewicz.  There had been a tussle over on-screen credit; Mankiewicz had originally signed on with the proviso he’d not receive any (perhaps understandably, as the story would offend still powerful people in the business—and in fact the Oscar audience booed whenever “Kane” was announced as a nominee in any category).  But the he relented and demanded it.  Welles was peeved but eventually was forced to capitulate; the final screen credit goes to “Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles,” with the order reminding one more than a little of that great scene in the film where Kane finishes up his erstwhile friend Jed Leland’s negative review of his wife’s opera debut in the acid style in which it was begun, a gesture supposedly proving his integrity.

But over the years Welles was accorded more and more credit for the brilliance of “Kane,” especially after the ascent of the so-called “auteur” theory in film criticism of the 1950s, which saw the director as the guiding force behind a film, especially a well-regarded one.  So the distinctiveness—and greatness—of “Citizen Kane” were attributed, for the most part at least, to Welles, though he himself often praised the collaboration of others in its making.

That notion was challenged in 1971 by the renowned New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in her article “Raising Kane,” later reprinted in “The Citizen Kane Book.”  She saw Mankiewicz as the true “author” of the film, and argued that Welles had over the years tried to undercut Mank’s contribution to the result while overstating his own.  The article elicited criticism from Welles’s supporters as well as more nuanced analyses by scholars of the picture’s genesis as a collaborative effort, but one in which Welles’s vision remained the decisive element.  Jack Fincher, however, based his screenplay largely on the Kael thesis.

But the question of whether Mankiewicz or Welles was the true “author” of “Citizen Kane,” while not absent from “Mank,” is really secondary to its portrayal of the animosity between the writer and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron who was the thinly-disguised model for Kane.  Mankiewicz had been a favorite of Hearst’s in his studio days, and a friend of Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies in the 1930s, but by the time “Citizen Kane” was written, the men had had a falling-out and Mankiewicz’s career floundered; he used the screenplay to take a sort of cinematic revenge on his old patron.  Hearst and his supporters, of course, sought to kill the film, and pretty much succeeded at the time, but Mank had the pleasure of his Oscar to console him.  Perhaps he was also pleased to see Welles go down in flames as his Hollywood career collapsed. 

Jack Fincher’s “Mank” presents Mankiewicz’s story as a parable of a tragic Hollywood hero, and even gives it a sort of “Rosebud” of its own—the failed run of muckraking author Upton Sinclair for the California governorship in 1934.  (Anyone wanting a fine popular history of that episode is directed to Greg Mitchell’s 1991 book, “The Campaign of the Century.”)  Here Mankiewicz rebels against the shady doings of Hearst, along with his confederates Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg at MGM, to derail the liberal Sinclair’s campaign by producing a bunch of scurrilous newsreels to persuade the public to vote for his nonentity Republican opponent—an early version of the underhanded tactics so prevalent in American politics today.  His motive is partially political—Hearst was a onetime progressive turned arch-reactionary—but, in this telling, also deeply personal: his friend Shelly Metcalf, an aspiring director, had been recruited to make the newsreels and was so distraught over the role he’d played in Sinclair’s resounding defeat that he killed himself. 

This whole episode rewrites history: the actual man behind the newsreels, Felix Feist, did not commit suicide, going on to have a long if thoroughly undistinguished directorial career; and Metcalf, played by Jamie McShane, is a fiction.  But dramatically it gives Fincher’s Mankiewicz an idealistic motive for lambasting Hearst the way he did in his script for “Kane,” and wanting people to know of his role in writing it.  (Of course, the fact that he was told by friends that his draft was the best thing he’d ever done, even as they were warning him of the damage it would bring on him, was a powerful incentive to his desire for recognition too.) 

All of which is a long prologue to an assessment of “Mank” not as history—it fudges many other things for dramatic effect just as it does the newsreel affair—but as an entertainment.  And in that respect the film fares quite well.  For one thing, it mimics “Kane” in structure and style, which will certainly appeal to devotees of that film.  The narrative shifts back and forth between the 1930s and Mankiewicz’s writing of the “Kane” first draft (originally dubbed “American”) in the same way that Welles’s film exults in shuffling chronology, pointing up the complexities by introducing scenes with the kind of directions that occur in an actual screenplay. (The editing is by Kirk Baxter.) And it’s shot in lustrous black-and-white by Erik Messerschmidt, who takes full advantage of the period detail in Donald Graham Burt’s production design and Trish Summerville’s costumes.  The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross has an appropriately old-fashioned feel, too.

And the cast have a grand time pretending to be luminaries from Hollywood’s golden age.  First and foremost is Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz.  To be honest, the bon mots supplied him by Fincher aren’t really witty enough to justify the frequently-repeated observation that he was considered hysterically quick and funny by his contemporaries, but Oldman certainly carries off the part, even delivering a some overripe monologues with conviction, if not always plausibility.  Dance offers a typically snooty Hearst, practically dripping with hauteur, while Amanda Seyfried is charming as the underestimated Davies, being particularly happy in showing off the actress’ ostentatious wardrobe. The women in Mankiewicz’s life are nicely played by Lily Collins as his prim British secretary Rita, Tuppence Middleton as his long-suffering but supportive wife Sara, and Monika Gossmann as his faithful attendant Frieda.

Then there are the raft of fellows impersonating well-known contemporaries, some friends and others frenemies.  These include Arliss Howard as Mayer, Ferdinand Kingsley as Thalberg, Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick, Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer, Jeff Harms as Ben Hecht, and Tom Pelphrey as Herman’s brother Joe, a writer and director himself.  Needless to say, Mankiewicz’s collaborators on “Kane” also make appearances—Tom Burke does a nifty impersonation of the infrequently seen Welles, as does Sam Troughton as John Houseman, the fastidious go-between between Orson and Mank.  Bill Nye contributes a short but telling cameo as Sinclair.

As should be obvious from that catalogue of characters, most viewers will have difficulty in identifying all of them, and the Finchers don’t attempt to provide more information on them than is absolutely necessary.  They do offer enough, though, for audiences to understand the interrelationships among them and their attitudes toward Mankiewicz. 

Still, enjoying “Mank” to the fullest really does require a pretty thorough appreciation of “Citizen Kane,” at least a nodding acquaintance with the controversy over its “authorship,” and a willingness to dive into the complicated politics of the time (both at the studios and in the wider country).  That means that the film will appeal most to movie buffs, who will come to it with more background knowledge, if perhaps also with some preconceived notions about the making of “Kane.”  But it has been structured cleverly enough that one doesn’t need to be a cinematic historian to enjoy it. 

And it certainly represents a love letter by David Fincher not only to the Hollywood films of old, especially “Citizen Kane,” but to his father, who would certainly have admired the skill and good taste his son has lavished on it.