Is Citizen Kane Really the Best Movie Ever Made?

This summer, Teen Central has two teen employees helping us out with content. Recently, local high schooler CJ McLaughlin decided to finally watch Citizen Kane to let our patrons know whether or not this classic film is worth the hype.

80 years ago last Sunday, radio/theater actor and producer Orson Wells released his first-ever feature film, Citizen Kane. The film has oft-been cited as the greatest film ever made and consistently tops best-of-all-time lists.

In both film circles and for wider audiences, the movie has remained a culturally and technically important piece, and for many film buffs, it’s considered to be mandatory viewing. But as someone who managed to go the entirety of their life, before last week, lying about having seen the movie, I want to pose the following questions: Do you actually need to watch Citizen Kane? Or can you still get away with pretending to?

I’ve been a huge film fan for a long time, and the top level of snobbiest film buffs will make reference to what they see as “true film.” While the idea that any subjective piece could “objectively be the true version of the medium” is an absurd concept in and of itself, many consider Citizen Kane to be a part of that category. In these groups, I would find myself making reference to the handful of clips I'd seen, or vague concepts about the movie, and weirdly enough, that always seemed to do the trick.

But before I go any further, what is Citizen Kane about? Not the idea of the movie, but the movie itself. At its simplest, the film follows a reporter named Jerry Thompson trying to discover the meaning behind the last thing that the fabulously wealthy news tycoon Charles Kane said: “Rosebud.” The majority of the film follows the structure of Thompson interviewing former friends or family members of Kane, and then from there, flashing back into a story depicting Kane’s early idealism, rise to fame and wealth, and the conviction that he held utter power over the beliefs of America. 

The character of Kane is considered to be an amalgamation of a variety of later 19th and early 20th-century newspaper owners as well as some of the writers’ own experiences, and many modern interpretations draw parallels between Kane and modern figures like media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his efforts with Fox News.

Now, as much as this may be a form of film heresy, there are parts of the movie that definitely don’t hold up well. Most central roles like Orson Wells as Kane, or Joseph Cotten, as his longtime friend Jedediah Leland, are portrayed masterfully. However, most of the other actors outside those characters are quite clearly new to film (as the film openly admits in its end credits), and are still stage-acting, rather than movie acting, leading to awkwardly paced scenes throughout the movie.

Still, on a technical level, the film remains very solid. Save for young Kane’s childhood home, all the sets are extremely well designed and decorated and draw the viewer in incredibly well. The camerawork is also very well done, and while it would be great work today, it is made even more impressive by the circumstances of its production.

So the technical side of the movie still holds up well, and the performances are mostly still really good. If you are into film or film history, and you somehow have managed to avoid seeing this already, of course, check it out. The annoying film buffs aren’t wrong about that, but I don’t feel like it has some transcendent power. At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend the movie to anyone just looking for something to watch on a Friday night. Oh and, spoiler alert, Rosebud is the name on Kane’s sled if anyone asks.