Op-ed: Is ‘Citizen Kane’ Really That Good?
Spoilers ahead for Citizen Kane.
As we anticipate David Fincher’s Mank hitting Netflix this weekend, there are likely to be a number of think pieces and other articles talking about Citizen Kane. In the world of “hot take” culture we live in now, it’s trendy to downplay films like Kane. Call me pretentious or conventional, but to answer the fundamental question; yes. Citizen Kane really is the best film of all-time. Or it’s in the conversation. At the very least, it really is my favorite film of all-time.
Are you serious right now? C’mon, that’s so boring.
I’m sorry, I know, Kane has been talked to death and now it’s considered trite to have it top your list. But it really does for me.
Fine, explain yourself.
Gladly. For one, it’s a technical marvel of its time. It was made in 1941, but watching it by today’s standards and it feels like it was made last week. The film’s clever and inventive editing alone is a masterpiece. The opening shot of snowy Xanadu fading into the snowglobe in Charles Kane’s hands as he dies is nothing short of breathtaking. An opening shot for the ages. There’s also the shot of the Chronicle staff lying still in the picture frame, only for the camera to zoom in as it becomes a live-action scene with Charles walking in from the left side of the frame.
We get it.
Yeah, I know, people have analyzed the film to death. I also understand that Kane wasn’t the only film to employ camera tricks. Other auteurs of the time, or even before Orson Welles, were able to do fascinating things with the camera as well. But compared to the conventional norm of the era, it was still very much ahead of the time. And not just with specific shots like the examples above, but the general jumping of timelines and interviews are diligently weaved into a precise thread that smartly amplifies the foundational question of; who was Charles Foster Kane? Robert Wise’s editing is vital to answering that question, and by the end, we do get a great sense of who he was and what was missing in his life.
Oh, I know what you’re talking about. You mean Rosebud.
Yes, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The reveal of Rosebud is potent in large part because of Kane‘s editing and cinematography, but it’s the clarity of Kane’s ethos in the storytelling as the film builds to that iconic revelation that arguably carries more weight. As thematically stirring as it is, the film’s ending doesn’t hit as hard if we don’t understand the nuances of Kane’s life and what drove him at his core. Wise’s transcendent tactics help render a timelessness to Kane, but his ability to make Charles Kane’s story feel grandiose and intimate simultaneously is what earned him an Oscar nomination (and he should have won). However, it’s not Wise alone. Obviously. The brilliance of Welles’ direction is in how he marries Wise’s editing with Gregg Toland’s cinematography and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s screenplay. The dialogue and narrative dance with the film’s editing and camerawork in a way that’s truly magical. From beginning to end, they are all hand in hand. They never loosen their grip and it makes for some of the most riveting sequences in all of cinema. Perhaps my favorite example in the film comes early on, after that great opening shot, and we see what appears to be a sequence of mundane exposition as a narrator reads through Kane’s Wikipedia page (so to speak) telling us all of the most notable bullet points of his life. However, it’s revealed to actually be a documentary being made by some of Kane’s closest allies. A skillful sleight of hand. As soon as we become aware of that revelation, one of the characters references that it’s 70 years of a man’s life and another notes “yeah, that’s a lot to take in.” As if the film itself is very aware of how tedious that kind of information dumping is on an audience. A fun little gag that works because of smart writing and imaginative editing.
I’m guessing there’s more, though.
You would be correct. Because the scene only gets better from there. One of the characters argues that the film (the documentary about Kane) needs an ending. Specifically, he says “it’s not enough to tell us what a man did, you got to show who he was.” Exactly. That’s what the best films do. They show us. And they do it uniquely. They do it in a way only cinema can. And it’s what Citizen Kane does so magnificently. It’s why the marriage of writing and editing (and really all of the technicalities) is so crucial to Citizen Kane‘s success. The two work congruently to show us who Charles Foster Kane was, the good, the bad, and everything in between. We learn of his affable convictions as a newspaperman, wanting to expose the greed in corporate America, even if that goes against his own business interests. In one of the most iconic lines from the film, Charles notes that “If I hadn’t been rich, I could have been a really great man.” A great line. And true. As the film goes on to demonstrate, Charles does get bogged down in his wealthy lifestyle. He does become a victim of his loneliness, his passions, his selfishness, and all the complexities that made him who he was. Things we all see, not just hear about through conversation.
So, what does that have to do with Rosebud?
Great question. Before we get to the magic trick at the end, let’s first go back to the aforementioned scene about the Kane documentary. The group is talking about the final words from Kane right before he died. During their conversation, one of them offers up some of the most poignant foreshadowing I’ve seen in a movie, where he says, “Here’s a man who could have been president. He was as loved and hated and talked about as any man in our time. But when it comes time to die, he’s got something on his mind called Rosebud.” The profundity of that statement slays me, even now after seeing Kane god knows how many times.
Charles Foster Kane is the embodiment of the American Dream. Of American wealth. He built a massive empire with the money given to him by his family. He built a mansion so costly that it’s never revealed to us how much it actually cost. Just that it cost more than any other mansion on the planet. I mean, it had its own private zoo for crying out loud. He had it all. Or did he? In the end, Kane was simultaneously a man of everything and of nothing. Everything he bought was fleeting. The relationships he built were disingenuous. Except for one. And he threw that away for a negative review of a singer he really didn’t care about all that much. The only thing that he truly loved…that he truly longed for in the end? His childhood.
Oh boy, cue the #JDTears.
In a flashback, we see a young Charles Kane playing out in the snow with his sled, having a great time. There’s an innocence to him that’s very endearing. He does not know that he’s about to be ripped from his family. However, the moment money became a defining factor for his family, everything changed. And on his deathbed, all he wanted was that singular moment of innocence where he was a child. Full of unfiltered joy and happiness. As a father to a 5-year-old, I luckily get to see this every day in my boy. And it makes me think about my childhood quite a lot. And how special it is in our lives. Of course, for many of us, there comes the moment where youthful innocence transforms into harsh reality. But we all have that period of blissful childhood. That toy or item that we always clutched to at that age. For me, it was a hockey stick and some homemade gear. For Charles Kane, it was a sled.
Has anyone else been this moved by Citizen Kane?
Probably not? I’m honestly not sure, but this is a film that destroys me. That I find genuinely profound. Learning of what Rosebud is, and what it meant to Charles after all these years, it’s an emotional wallop and a blistering revelation as the credits begin to roll. A reminder that the best pleasures in life are embedded in our younger days and that we can cling to that in our present. A notion that is thematically rich, but also earned dramatically and emotionally because of what the film does in the execution of *showing* us Kane’s life, and not leaving it to words from a faceless narrator.
So yeah, Citizen Kane. My favorite film of all-time.