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Citizen Kane, a true story of the future

Friday 30 April 2021

Orson Welles’ film – often called the greatest of all time – is 80 years old. But its age isn’t nearly as remarkable as its prescience


Tomorrow, the world’s most critically acclaimed film turns 80: Citizen Kane premiered at the RKO Palace Theater in New York on 1 May 1941. Every five or ten years, articles appear announcing that Citizen Kane is five or ten years older. Such pieces are naturally retrospective. They recount how, aged only 24, Orson Welles was lured away from radio and theatre to Hollywood, by a contract with RKO Radio Pictures that gave him complete creative control over any movie he chose to make. They dissect how Gregg Toland perfected the deep focus cinematography that allows Citizen Kane to convey, in each shot, more information than most films communicate in whole scenes. They detail the vendetta waged against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the billionaire newspaper owner who inspired much of its main character. And they discuss the snowballing adulation Citizen Kane attracted until, for half a century, it became the cinephile’s default answer to the question, “What is the best movie ever made?”

These stories are Hollywood legends and it’s right that we repeat them: legends need to be retold in order to be passed on. This year, the temptation to look back at Citizen Kane’s beginnings is even stronger than on previous anniversaries, if only because of David Fincher’s Mank. Mank – which was nominated for ten Oscars, and won two, at the recent Academy Awards – is a fictionalised account of how Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of Citizen Kane’s screenplay after souring on his friendship with William Randolph Hearst.

But there are more important points to be made about Citizen Kane this year. What matters on its 80th birthday is not the way we look back at Citizen Kane’s past, but the way it looked forward to our present. Citizen Kane was a prophetic film, and we are living at the time when its prophecies have come true. 

In Mank’s version of history, the unsuccessful run for Governor of California made by Upton Sinclair in 1934 is central to the genesis of Citizen Kane. To promote his campaign, Sinclair wrote a pamphlet titled I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. That subtitle, “A True Story of the Future”, could more accurately have been affixed to Citizen Kane. Here is a movie from 1941 that feels like it’s about the half-decade of US politics that immediately preceded 2021 – and perhaps beyond. That would be remarkable even if the film in question weren’t the most celebrated in cinema history.

What is pertinent now is not the resemblance Charles Foster Kane had to William Randolph Hearst but the resemblance he has to Donald J. Trump. Kane’s political career is startlingly like Trump’s: a businessman who inherited a fortune becomes a celebrity, first in New York, then throughout America, and finally around the world. He runs for high office. He has a vast media platform and armies of followers, but no experience of public service, no real policies and, at first, no real chance of winning. His campaign seems to consist of hosting enormous rallies where his surname is seen everywhere, on banners and posters and placards. 

He uses those rallies to give grandiose speeches calling his opponent, who is an experienced career politician, a criminal. (Twice in the film Kane calls his adversary “crooked”.) He has entered the race, he says, “to point out and make public the dishonesty” and “downright villainy” of his opponent’s “political machine”. And, once elected, his “first official act… will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction” of that opponent. The parallels to Trump’s 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton are uncanny. 

On election night, Kane’s flagship newspaper, The New York Inquirer, has two front page headlines ready to print: “KANE ELECTED” and “FRAUD AT POLLS!” So the parallels to the 2020 presidential election – and Trump’s behaviour after his loss to Joe Biden; he was pushing the “fraud” line in press releases only last weekend – are uncanny, too. As his failed campaign ends, Kane can permit only two realities: one in which he is victorious and one in which he has been cheated. That there is no evidence of electoral fraud, and that the reasons for Kane’s loss are clearly apparent, is irrelevant to the message he puts into the media.

Kane similarly (and literally) trades in fake news. When he is trying to push the US into war with Spain, his former guardian, the Wall Street banker Walter Thatcher, asks him if he can prove that his latest outrageous headline – “Galleons of Spain off Jersey Coast” – is in any way true. Kane answers with a question: “Can you prove it isn’t?” When his first wife worries what “people will think”, Kane interrupts her to insist that the people will think “what I tell them to think”.

Trump’s fixation on TV ratings echoes Kane’s preoccupation with the circulation of The New York Inquirer, just as Kane’s decision to have his bed moved into The Inquirer’s offices – “because the news goes on for 24 hours a day” – points towards the way Trump exploited the modern 24-hour news cycle by posting scattershot opinions on social media. The newsreel near the beginning of Citizen Kane informs us that “there was no public issue on which Kane… took no stand” and “no public man whom Kane himself did not support or denounce. Often support, then denounce.”

The consequence of all this, the film tells us, is that Kane “spoke for millions of Americans” and “was hated by as many more”. The idea of an America fractured by its news media is integral to Citizen Kane’s continued resonance. These similarities to our times are not remarkable coincidences. They are the endpoint the film predicted. It warned of the degradation of America’s media, and the pollution of its politics, to the point that a man with enough money, and enough exposure, could run for election by running against reality itself. 

Citizen Kane isn’t just the greatest American movie; it’s the greatest movie about America. If, as A.N. Whitehead asserted, much of European philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato”, much of American cinema can be seen as a series of footnotes to Citizen Kane. A remarkably diverse collection of Hollywood movies explore at length ideas it addresses more economically. The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990) are more extreme analyses of the corrupting pursuit of power. All The King’s Men (1949, remade in 2006) and Idiocracy (2006) devote themselves to the dangers of populism. And Network (1976) and The Truman Show (2008) look from different angles at the issues around mass media locked in pursuit of ever-higher ratings that Citizen Kane deals with so succinctly.

Where Citizen Kane’s foresight failed was in adopting a view of America’s future that was too restrained. It supposed that, though he ultimately wanted the White House, a man like Kane would have to run for governor before he could possibly run for president. And it imagined that a single sex scandal, a lone extramarital affair, could be enough to end his political ambitions forever.  

That wasn’t the case for Donald Trump. By the time a Kane-like populist rose high enough to challenge for the US presidency, attitudes in America had evidently shifted so far that complete political inexperience, multiple marriages, accusations of adultery and sexual assault, and a high-profile entanglement with a porn star were not enough to stop him being elected to the nation’s highest office. Trump may have eventually lost the White House to Biden, but the obstacles that stopped the ascent of Charles Foster Kane proved no barrier to him winning it in the first place.

The similarities between the plot of Citizen Kane and Trump’s rise to the presidency, though, may not have been entirely due to the film’s prescience. There is the possibility that Citizen Kane did not just predict Donald Trump’s career but actually inspired it: Trump has said that Citizen Kane is his favourite film. The message he took from it, he told the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, was a warning against avarice: “The wealth, the sorrow, the unhappiness… At the end of the accumulation, you see what happens, and it’s not necessarily all positive. Not positive.” Although he seems alert to its warnings, Trump’s conduct before his victory over Clinton, and after his loss to Biden, suggests that he may have seen in Citizen Kane not a cautionary tale but a blueprint – or a battle plan.

Certainly, some of his real life role models are embedded in Citizen Kane. In his 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal, which was ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz, Trump states that at one time he was drawn to the idea of being a movie mogul and that he admired the major studio executives of Hollywood’s golden age, “most of all Louis B. Mayer”, because he considered them “great showmen”. Mank argues that Louis B. Mayer was the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s Mr Bernstein, though Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) stresses that “Bernstein is a far nicer character”. To emphasise this point, Fincher shows Mayer giving a stirring speech to his employees, imploring them to join together in making personal sacrifices for the good of America, before swindling them out of half their paycheques.

Gary Oldman in Mank

It is not true that Citizen Kane just tells the story of William Randolph Hearst. Both Henry Luce – the magazine magnate routinely referred to as “the most influential private citizen in the America of his day” – and Hearst’s arch rival as a newspaper publisher, Joseph Pulitzer, were also obvious models for elements of Charles Foster Kane. And, of course, parts of him were entirely fictional. Kane was created not as an image of one man but as a type, and it is telling that the original title of Citizen Kane’s screenplay did not refer to him by name; it was called simply The American. In the finished film that is how Kane defines himself: “I am, have been, and will be only one thing – an American.”

Eighty years after Citizen Kane’s premiere, the Kane-esque entertainer-politician is not a type unique to America. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Boris Johnson in Britain all have their own parallels. So, too, do the media-savvy successors to Trump – from Madison Cawthorn to Marjorie Taylor Greene to Caitlyn Jenner – who are simultaneously at the forefront, and on the fringes, of the post-Trump Republican Party. 

Consequently, Citizen Kane holds warnings about them all. Just as, in 1941, the film’s lessons should never have been interpreted to be entirely about William Randolph Hearst, so, in 2021, they should not be applied solely to Trump. 

Next year, the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine will hold its decennial poll of film critics to determine “the greatest film of all time”. That poll was won by Citizen Kane in 1962, 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002. Whether or not it wins in 2022 – and earlier this week it was “officially” dethroned by Paddington 2 as the best-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes – Orson Welles’ classic has matured into an even better film than it was on any of the earlier occasions when it topped that prestigious list.

The past five years have proved that, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or George Orwell’s 1984, Citizen Kane belongs to the rare group of great works that are increasingly applicable to our lives. At 80, it is more relevant now than it was when it was made.

Photographs by Getty Images and Netflix