How does the greatest film of all time stand today?
It seems nobody likes movies today, and even I am losing my taste for such. I knew long before tackling this monolith that it would be my last film review because like the rest of the world, my passions for stories caught by a camera and recorded for projection upon the silver screen have fizzled.
Widely considered, “the greatest film” of all time by the American Film Institute and many other sources while being honored and disputed by many more across the years, this film remains a cut above the rest as even those who have no intention of ever watching it have heard the name and are familiar with its legacy.
But what is it about, and what makes it worthy of such praise and disdain? Having finally revisited it after half a decade, I can honestly assert that it predicted the faults and problems with society in general by telling a tragedy of a person who stood up for someone who he believed to be downtrodden only to find himself become everything he once hated.
The film begins in a lonely, gothic estate, swirling with fog and darkness where a man lies dying alone stating, “Rosebud,” before dropping a snow-globe holding a winter landscape which shatters. News footage tells of his — Charles Foster Kane’s — life, rise to power as a powerful newspaper publisher, failed relationships and eventual closing himself off from the world in his last years, which leaves the reporters unsatisfied that they will never have the full story of this man, baffled by the meaning of his last word.
One reporter, Thompson, goes about interviewing the closest people in Kane’s life. There is Kane’s business manager and lifelong supporter, Bernstein, who believed Kane did no wrong and established a strong force of journalists at his newspaper “The Inquirer” and married the president’s niece. Then there is Leland, Kane’s former best friend who sacrificed his friendship and journalism career because of Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander. Kane left his first wife for Susan and his obsession for making Susan a star in opera led to false journalism to glorify Susan which Leland could not abide.
Finally, there is Susan, now a burned-out nightclub owner whose marriage to Kane left her a broken but wiser woman. Being a singer was a dream she had but not one she actively pursued, which Kane forced her into, believing he was helping her. The stress led to her attempting suicide and after being controlled for years by Kane, she left him. Instead of the meaning of “Rosebud” being answered, more questions plague Thompson who accepts the fact he could never fully understand the meaning unless he himself were Kane.
“I don’t think any word can explain any man’s life,” Thompson muses, accepting his investigation is a fruitless one for the papers but a fruitful one for his own understanding. The final scene explores all the treasures Kane amassed for himself through his rabid spending hobby which are now carelessly cast into a furnace. Among all the literal stuff, is his childhood sled upon which is written “Rosebud,” the only thing of his childhood he was allowed to take with him.
It was established earlier that Kane was once a happy child living among poor parents who had just discovered gold in a deed and had sent their son to be raised by a wealthy banker named Thatcher, who Kane hated all his life.
Thatcher had meant no harm and had in fact believed he was helping Kane establish himself, like how Kane later attempted to help Susan establish herself, only to destroy her. The only difference here, is that Susan wanted to escape the gilded cage specifically molded for her, Kane did not want to escape his.
Throughout his life, Kane sought to stand up for the downtrodden by manipulating public opinion in his newspaper, only to make matters worse for those around him through dishonesty and false generosity. Earlier, in a rampant fit over losing Susan, he tears apart her room, breaking everything that is breakable and trying his best at articles his strength cannot break.
Only upon seeing the snow globe referenced at the beginning, he remembers his childhood — the home he left and the innocence he lost and goes calm. Love him or hate him, nobody can fully know Kane unless they were him, just like they couldn’t fully know you unless they were you.