Citizen Kane: A 21st Century Review

By-Shashank Reddy.

It has been widely touted as the greatest film ever made, has been rated No.1 on Sight and Sound’s annual critics’ poll five times running and Roger Ebert has declared it as ‘officially the greatest film ever’. So it would seem kind of surprising that I only ended up watching the movie a couple of days back. And my end verdict? It is a good movie, just not a great movie.

Now before cinematic purists start hyperventilating and throwing explanations and abuses side by side, I understand that Citizen Kane came out in the early 1940s and one must look at it with this time frame in mind. Honestly, in terms of the technical aspects, the movie is mind blowing, even by today’s standards (I especially love the transitions). Acting is top class, as is the direction (in most places). The core story, of a man who becomes the most powerful news baron in the country and his personal life, is there, is prevalent. But somewhere along the line, the movie gets so caught up in its tale of a media baron that it ends up looking like some news channel programme, with a number of interviews with various friends and acquaintances of the recently deceased, each highlighting a some aspect of his life, albeit very superficially. What is lacking is the emotional connect. What drives Charles Foster Kane to push his best and possibly only friend away? How did his childhood separation from his parents affect him? Such questions are merely hinted at and not brought into the focus at all.

Before I continue I’d like to add a disclaimer that here I am purposely seeking out controversy and maybe some physical bashing by the guy who stays in the room next to mine. Movies with similar themes have been continuously made in the 70 odd years since Citizen Kane was released. I’d like to bring out two such examples from India, Nayagan and Guru, and compare them to Citizen Kane. The two movies have both been directed by the legendary Mani Ratnam and have similar themes of rise and fall of great men, but deal with opposite aspects of this theme. Nayagan looks at the rise and fall of underworld don Mudaliar Varadarajan and the effect of his position on his personal life in a beautiful, poignant manner that makes you feel for the don from the first scene to the last. Guru on the other hand is definitely not one of Mani Ratnam’s better movies, but still is a wonderful study in contrast with both Nayagan and Citizen Kane, in its treatment of the more business side of the rise and rise of Gurubhai (based on the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani), casting an unflinching eye on the politics and business practices of a man determined to get to the top. Citizen Kane fall squarely in between these two movies in its thematic presentation and therein lies its greatest flaw. By concentrating neither on Kane’s personal life, nor on his business practices, the movie becomes just a series of random interviews about a thing called ‘Rosebud’, which you do not really care about. I wanted to see something about Kane the man, and got nothing. I thank Orson Welles for all the technical and certain story-telling innovations in the movies which have heavily influenced movies over the decades, some of which are I feel, better than the progenitor.

Maybe the problem was with me. And my over expectations. Still, even in retrospect, Citizen Kane isn’t as great as say Casablanca or The Godfather, but is still heads and shoulders above the most over rated movie of all times, Gone With The Wind (bloody hated that movie).

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