Citizen Kane ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In this film we see the arc of a wealthy man’s life from childhood memories to his aspirations after college, from wielding power in the middle of life to an end that, amidst vast wealth and opulence, simply looks back on childhood, and then goes up in smoke. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) may have been based on William Randolph Hearst and the film a critique of the ‘rich and powerful’, but there are elements of it that are also universal. It takes a piercing look into how people change over time, how power corrupts, and how all life is transient.

Kane may have all of the benefits that money brings, but he’s also a little broken inside, with perhaps a narcissistic or attachment disorder stemming from having been given up for adoption by his own biological parents when he was a boy (and that, in turn, hinted as being due to his father’s abuse). He therefore has no real friends, or true love. He positions himself as a ‘man of the people’, but he’s aloof and above them, using them to amplify his own power. He may collect all of the statues he can find in Europe for his castle in America, but ultimately dies like anyone else, without any real meaning, and his possessions disbursed.

It’s fascinating to watch Kane evolve over the film. His days as a young man are full of hubris and the desire to run a newspaper, mainly to push social messages. While he also has a knack for increasing circulation via sensationalism, he’s also pure enough to pen a ‘Declaration of Principles’ that promises to publish truth, free of special interests. In a fantastic exchange, his friend Jedediah (Joseph Cotten) points out that his first two sentences have started with the word “I”, and as we’ll see, the ‘special interest group’ that Kane sells out to is Kane himself. He gradually morphs to begin abusing the power he has as a publisher, swaying opinions on war, and flat out saying that the people will think what he tells them to think.

Kane’s relationships also evolve in interesting ways. Early on he seems so close with Jedediah, jovial and dancing at office parties, but he fires him without thinking twice about it when Jedediah dares to publish the truth in a review of his second wife’s awful performance at the opera. In a parallel way, we see this second wife (Dorothy Comingore) go from a humble, nice, and honest woman he meets on the street one night to a spoiled and vindictive wife, then bitter alcoholic. She speaks about Kane over a drink in a two-bit club, and Jedediah speaks about him from an assisted living facility. The film has a rather dark view of the endgame that awaits us all.

The transience of life is further emphasized by little moments in the supporting cast, such as Bernstein (Everett Sloane) saying of his own life these fantastic lines: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

Orson Welles is excellent as both actor and director, and the way the story is told, via flashbacks from multiple perspectives and short jumps in time, is compelling. He also utilizes a number of innovative and interesting visual techniques that feel modern. If you’re looking for a film with an uplifting message, one with action, or one that will leave you feeling warm, this is not your film. On the other hand, there is such honesty here about power and about life, the filmmaking is fantastic, and it has an ending that is absolutely devastating, in those plumes of smoke going up into the night sky.

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