Citizen Kane, frequently touted as the greatest movie of all time by people who make movies for a living, is celebrating its 71st birthday in 2012. It is one of my all time favorite films, both because it is a beautifully crafted film and because it is a thinly veiled biography of yellow journalist William Randolph Hearts, with whom I have had a fascination since first learning the origins of the Spanish-American War.
Citizen Kane is the story of Charles foster Kane, a megalomaniacal journalism magnate who rapidly loses his idealism as his power grows. To be more accurate, as he grows larger than life, he loses everything in his life. Although he dies fabulously wealthy surrounded by objets d’ art, he dies alone after having alienated everyone in his life he ever loved. Or at least thought he loved. Kane seems incapable of basic human relationships.
There are many technical eye catching aspects of Citizen Kane. One is that the story is told largely in flashbacks. While that is not unusual today--I might go so far as to say the technique is frequently abused-- it was innovative in 1941. The film begins at the announcement of Kane’s death. We see a newsreel recap of his life before meeting a reporter who is attempting to uncover the meaning of Kane’s final word--”Rosebud.” The second striking aspect is the directing. While Welles was a brilliant actor who was able to bring kane to life in all his arrogant splendor, he carefully used camera angles to emphasize Kane in relation to everyone with whom he interacted. Whenever we are looking at Kane onscreen, we are looking up at him. If he is talking to another person, we are always looking down at him or her from the same perspective as Kane. It is a brilliant method for establishing Kane’s staus.
The film itself has aged well because virtually every element is perfect. The acting and directing, with Welles both playing Kane and directing the film, are incomparable. Equally amazing is Citizen Kane was Welles’ debut. There are few film these days that can handle a narrative in flashbacks quite like , and one must appreciate the film virtually originated the idea for film use.
Kane would probably not be such a controversial figure these days when someone like Rupert Murdoch has allegedly been involved in phone tapping and Donald Trump has done everything from wear a chicken suit on Saturday Night Live to use President Barack Obama of being born in Kenya with loads of embarrassing personal revelations along the way. It is hard to believe there was a time when Hearst was so incensed by Citizen Kane, he forbade his newspapers to write about it. Nevertheless, the emotional impact of the film is not lost in these jaded times. It is still the timeless story of a man who destroys everything worthwhile in life during his pursuit of money and power, only to discover too late the really important things in life are like times spent as a child playing on his sled, Rosebud.
Rating: ***** (out of 5)