When the American Film Institute named “Citizen Kane” #1 on its list of the top 100 movies of all time, it made little impression on me.
“A stuffy old organization awarded a stuffy old film based on reputation and nostalgia,” I thought. “How could a movie made before my parents were born be as great as ‘Goodfellas?’ It’s absurd.”
I was wrong. “Citizen Kane” is a splendid, lively film. It is entertaining, accessible, and unpretentious.
Writer/director Orson Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane. He spent his first few years living in humble obscurity in rural Colorado. That is until they discovered that his mother’s property sits on a mountain of gold. Suddenly super-rich Kane is shipped off to New York City to begin a life of privilege.
At 25, Kane could do anything he dreamed. All he wanted was to be a newspaper publisher. In his idealistic youth, he used The New York Inquirer to call out the excesses of his fellow millionaires. As the years go by and his ego grows, Kane uses his newspaper to further his own ambitions. Ultimately, he runs for governor of New York.
The striking thing about “Citizen Kane” is that it hasn’t aged a day. Every plot point and every theme is relevant today.
It’s kind of a relief to learn that politics hasn’t changed in 80 years. From the opening scene, we hear Kane and his adversaries call each other “communist” and “fascist” without making it clear that they even know what those terms mean.
The night before the big election, Kane’s campaign is derailed by a scandal. His cynical enemies made sure that the scandalous news hit the papers at just the right time.
I’m proud of the public today because we now see right through the bogus outrage of political scandals. In late October, we are going to learn that President Trump – gasp! – withheld military aid to Belarus for selfish reasons or that Senator Biden – shocker! – muttered an offensive slur about Anita Hill on a hot mic back in ’91. We are finally immune to scandals, though, so it won’t change any of our votes.
What hasn’t changed is that the media sometimes reports the news and sometimes it simply makes up the news. The New York Inquirer places blame on Madrid for a boat explosion to drum up support for the profitable Spanish American War (William Randolph Hurst actually did this).
When Kane’s untalented wife can’t make it in showbiz, the Inquirer runs headlines about what a hot star and glamorous spouse she is. Eventually, fiction becomes reality and her mediocre songs get popular. It may as well be called “The Selena Gomez story.”
Orson Welles’s profound conclusion to “Citizen Kane” is as relevant as ever. At the end of his life, Kane realizes that he would have been happier if he had just stayed in Colorado with his mom. Fame and fortune turned him into a miserable megalomaniac. They brought him no joy and robbed him of his capacity to love.
I’m embarrassed that I was almost as arrogant as Charles Foster Kane. I was wrong and the American Film Institute was right. “Citizen Kane” might actually be the #1 movie of all time.