TV movie review: American Experience: The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

The Battle Over Citizen Kane fleshes out how much Citizen Kane was based on the life of William Randolph Hearst. The documentary looks at Heart’s life, Welles’ life, and the battle that was fought over the film.

Welles intentionally went after Hearst in Citizen Kane. Hearst bought up newspapers and peddled swill in his papers, often instigating matters or making up stories. In both Citizen Kane and real life, Hearst played a part in creating the Spanish American War. He had the audacity to send a reporter to the King of Spain to demand peace on his terms. He ran for public office after public office. And lost. He incited people to acts of violence with his rhetoric. After twice calling for President McKinley to be shot, the president was in fact assassinated.

Even the mysterious final word of Kane is a jab at Hearst: Rosebud. In the film, it turns out that Rosebud was the name painted on Kane’s childhood sled. In reality, the rumor is that Rosebud was the name of the private part’s of Hearst’s mistress.

While Citizen Kane does not portray the protagonist in a good light, neither does it portray the second wife, who was based on Heart’s mistress, well. Presumably, it was this latter point that led Heart to try to destroy the film and then Welles. In fact, Citizen Kane was the height of Welles’ fame. Shut out of the academy awards—only receiving one after nine nominations for a film that has been considered one of the best if not the best—Welles never was allowed to direct another film.

The documentary also shows how Heart and Welles were similar: both were egomaniacal tyrants who insisted on their way being followed and needs being met. The scene where Welles trashes the bedroom of his second wife immediately after she left him was based on the tantrum he threw at a restaurant where he was meeting with staff of the film (a tantrum that produced $40,000 worth of damage).

The picture painted of Hearst in the documentary resonates uncomfortably with presidential candidate Donald Trump—a bombastic egotistical maniac who incites violence with his words while seeking the adoration of a run for public office. Unlike Trump, Hearst didn’t care what others thought of him.

The Battle Over Citizen Kane is an interesting film about the history of Hearst, Welles, and the movie, and is a great companion to the film Citizen Kane.

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