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Coming to Hollywood as a celebrated boy genius featuring a spectacular career arc in New York including his radio hoax War of the Worlds, Orson Welles is stymied on the subject for his first film. After a dinner party at Hearst Castle, during which he has a verbal altercation with William Randolph Hearst, Welles decides to do a movie about Hearst. It takes him some time to convince co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and the studio, but Welles eventually gets the script and the green light, keeping the subject very hush-hush with the press. The movie is about an aging newspaper publisher who controlled his enemies as ruthlessly as he controlled his friends; and whose mistress was destined for fame. When a rough cut is screened, Hearst gets wind of the movie's theme and begins a campaign to see that it is not only never publicly screened, but destroyed. Written by
Greg Bulmash <email@example.com>
In the shot of Orson cutting the Citizen Kane script, one of Kane's lines is "Who knows what lurks in the hearts of evil men? The Shadow knows!" This was the classic introduction played at the beginning of every episode of Welles' famous radio program, "The Shadow". See more »
Louella Parsons storms out of a screening of "Citizen Kane" before it's finished. However, she later tells Hearst that "Rosebud" is a sled, even though that fact is only revealed in the last moment of the film. See more »
The key to enjoying this film is in being able to divorce yourself from the idea that this is an accurate representation of the making of Citizen Kane. RKO 281 as a stand-alone film is not bad, though the short running time left me feeling like I'd only seen the primary colors of what could've been a rich piece of fiction.
And it does feel more like fiction than truth.
Watching RKO 281 as a Welles enthusiast was a struggle. Welles himself was such a unique *presence*, a magician in more ways than one, and Liev Schreiber just doesn't evoke the god-like charisma and fury that were manifestations of Welles' particular genius. I would've preferred Vincent D'Onofrio (who pulled off an excellent Welles in Ed Wood after only two weeks of preparation) or even Oliver Platt. It is important to get the "character" of Welles RIGHT in a movie about his masterpiece. If RKO 281 failed egregiously on any level, it's this one.
Though this film is about the MAKING of Citizen Kane, it doesn't address why Citizen Kane had such an impact later in its life. We know that Welles had to fight very hard to save his picture against a variety of political agendas. However, a hard-won battle does not a classic film make...on its own. The only clues we get from RKO character Welles are his passionate and other-worldly exclamations along the lines of, "I just KNOW this is the MOMENT for this story!--Everything I AM is in this film!", etc. It's too mystical for me, and I think it does an injustice to the efforts of Welles and his collaborators to suggest that it was simply the luck (and maliciousness towards Hearst) of a spoiled boy wonder that made what is widely considered to be the best movie of all time.
Welles was in a unique position during that era. He had carte blanche in the movie studios--a status unprecedented before or since--and had the means to create his vision fully to his specifications. Getting the picture *released* was nothing short of a miracle, however, and I think it would've been interesting to dive into yet another layer of what Citizen Kane represents: Art for Art's sake. It's heartbreaking to note that Welles' subsequent film The Magnificent Ambersons was butchered beyond recognition by the studio--those who were fortunate enough to view Welles original (and now lost) cut thought that Ambersons was his true masterpiece, that Citizen Kane was merely a warm-up (!!!). Can you just imagine what this man could've accomplished if only...?
Which brings me to William Randolph Hearst. RKO 281 barely scratches the surface of how powerful Hearst was at the time. The residual effects of his attempt to stop Citizen Kane's release were felt by the film industry (and by Welles in particular) for many years after, and I would've liked to see the nature of this confrontation more clearly.
I've often said that Citizen Kane was Orson Welles' bane and salvation, for we see in hindsight that he sacrificed himself (and ultimately his future)
to earn a beautiful and tragic place in cinematic history. Overall, I wanted an edgier, darker, and more complex account of RKO 281. If I remove all pre-conceived notions and expectations, I find that this docudrama is interesting and fun to watch, but ultimately, I cannot help being drawn back to what made this 1999 film possible: the tumultuous triumph of a long-shot movie as envisioned by a temperamental, inexperienced genius. There are many shadowy folds to the real story of Citizen Kane, and RKO 281 feels like a bowl of plastic fruit in comparison.
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