Citizen Kane is often touted as the greatest American movie. It is studied in virtually all film schools. Its construction, by all measures is impeccable.
Having seen the movie again, it appears to me that Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Wells, who wrote the screenplay, were prophets.
The 1941 story was ostensibly about the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He held a conglomerate of newspapers and used them to build an empire of wealth and destroy his enemies.
It was largely a story about the main character Charles Foster Kane as told to a reporter through interviews by other characters who knew him. Through everyone’s eyes Kane was described as a shameless self promoter who loved no one but his own image of himself and believed in nothing except his own wealth. He dragged along his close supporters with his own success. He used his newspapers to intimidate his rivals and to seduce and influence the masses to give him the love he never knew as a child. The core elements are the character’s ambition that propels him to the limelight and his flaws that eventually lead to his undoing. He touted himself as a champion of the people, trying to get himself elected to public office. He had limited initial success but was eventually defeated by scandal of his own making. You could argue that the movie had a happy ending.
However, the story not written is the alternative to Kane’s defeat. Had he succeeded, there may have been some opportunity for a change of character. It is often said that people do not change. In literature, however, one of the basic structural components of a story is a change of character. In the alternative, perhaps Kane would have experienced his “rosebud” moment much sooner than at the moment of his death. In that case, Kane’s could have been a life fulfilled. Having the opportunity for a life of service, he may have died a happy man.
I will not resist citing the tendency for life to imitate art. We have an instance today where Kane’s story can be rewritten. We have a new president, sworn in today, who is about to have the greatest life changing experience one can expect to have. That kind of impetus is a proper motivation for a character’s change. The now former president has noted within the last week that that awesome experience and the responsibility that comes with it changes a person.
That could be a good thing, or not. I see two paths that may be taken. Written in 1941, it’s easy to draw a parallel between this story and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s. The premises of the two stories as written are not that different. We have in both cases an insatiable ego who amasses great power. The ego is inevitably threatened, and so reacts in a ruthless manner, suppressing all opposition.
The other path is predicated upon the question: is there another component to the personality that can create space between the challenges and the knee jerk reaction that is the habit? Is there any compartment of compassion or sense of belonging to humanity that can come between? Will a sense of service and awesome responsibility intervene? Our former president thinks so. Of course, he is, as he has declared, an unreformed optimist. I say, we’ll see.
Ben Mankiewicz, Herman’s grandson, introduces the film on TCM.