Citizen Kane is staged as a mystery – why did Kane say “Rosebud” right before he died? What did that mean? The problem with this device is that Citizen Kane isn't a very interesting mystery. As the film goes on, the whole “Rosebud” thing is pushed offstage in favor of a more complex character study. Indeed, the “testimonial” aspect of the film – looking at Kane through the eyes of the people who knew him – begins to fall by the wayside. When it's revealed what “Rosebud” is, we have to be reminded that it's significant. Other, bigger issues have obscured the mystery plot.
We all know the big twist ending, even if we haven't seen the film, so I'm just going to say it out loud without issuing a spoiler warning: Rosebud was the name of the sled that young Charlie Kane used to ride on as a child. “Rosebud,” then, was a declaration of longing for a cold, cloistered millionaire who couldn't find fulfillment in his vast wealth. Fine. Does that strike anyone else as being slightly corny? Doesn't it read as sentimental, cloyingly nostalgic, and out-of-character for this otherwise complex and dark movie? And what's more, we spend so little time with Charlie as a child, that Kane's childhood nostalgia is almost an afterthought. The film may have been stronger had we never found out what “Rosebud” was, leaving us with a provocative question mark rather than a definite answer.
Citizen Kane is often called a masterwork in cinematography, employing new camera angles, innovative filming techniques, and creative lighting to make a film that – ultimately – expanded and changed the way movies were made. I will not argue any of these points. I will say, however, that the techniques on display are more interesting to people who study film, and may not – just may not – be readily understandable by your average film-goer who hasn't read several volumes on the history of cinematography. There are some fun shots that anyone can enjoy, but unless you know how some of the shots were achieved, you may not bother to notice that they employed some new, exciting technique. Kane is a film student's wet dream, allowing them to crack off film school terms with excited rapidity. For others – who just wanna watch a movie – well, the techniques have been taken and re-used in so many films since Kane, that they may not read as impressive.
Citizen Kane may be a fictional character study of Charles Foster Kane, but it's pretty well-known to the general public that the film is really a real-life character dissection of infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. There is a definite political agenda to Citizen Kane that may outstrip its function as a story: Orson Welles sought to discredit Hearst's media empire by decrying its ruler as an empty, unknowable vessel of dissatisfaction. And there is a foolish hubris to that, isn't there? Welles was 26 when he made the film, and the political conceits on display are definitely from the mind of a young man. Idealistic, brash, and churlish. Did Welles really think he could bring down a media empire with his little movie? The word of the day is hubris. Kane did eventually come to color the public's views of Hearst, but it did nothing to weaken the Hearst machine.
I have heard this complaint often, so I will give it voice: Citizen Kane's central character is a lout. We know at the outset – just through general character introduction – that Kane was horrible. And while there are scenes of Kane as an idealistic young man declaring that he has principals, we know in our hearts – even watching the film for the first time – that Kane is being disingenuous pretty much 100% of the time. And if we see a corrupt man simply becoming more corrupt, only occasionally flirting with redemption, then the story doesn't have an intriguing enough arc. If we had spent more time with “idealistic” Kane, then his fall would have been more interesting, right?
Picture Humphrey Bogart as Charles Foster Kane. That doesn't quite work. How about Cagney? Close, but I'm still not seeing it. I think Claude Rains would have made an interesting Kane, but I doubt anyone would back me up on this. No. This is Orson Welles' show. I'm not going to criticize Welles' acting – by all measures he's great – but I will make the critical argument that a story cannot be universal if only one actor can play the part. It certainly makes the film unique and striking, but it can also rob from its power if you see it as one man's ego trip, rather than a stirring need to share a story with the world.