RKO 281 - The Battle Over "Citizen Kane" (VHS, 2000, Spanish Subtitled Version)

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A Fine Movie About Great Men Yelling About A Great Movie

Jun 7, 2002 (Updated Jun 7, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The cast, compelling story, an excuse to watch Citizen Kane again

Cons:Too much story, not enough running time, too much speechifying

The Bottom Line: A great story with great characters and fine performances that could have used more depth and texture to get an unconditional recommendation from me.


I like laying my historical movies out to make some kind of chronology of them, as if through fictionalized history a window to the unadulterated truth will somehow open. I understand, however, that watching Cat's Meow, Cradle Will Rock, and RKO-281 even in sequence won't really give me any true insight into the lives of famous men in a tumultuous time in our country's history (artistic and otherwise). But I enjoy watching Marion Davies age from Kirsten Dunst to Gretchen Mol to Melanie Griffith (a fairly plausible development) and William Randolph Hearst age from Edward Herrman to John Carpenter to James Cromwell (likely only if Hearst swallowed a tapeworm). I like being able to choose from Angus MacFadyen's blow-hard Welles and Liev Schreiber's tortured blow-hard Welles. Following the histories and stories of these three movies makes for a fun game. It doesn't change the fact that none of the three movies is entirely satisfying. Cradle Will Rock, despite an unreal cast, intriguing story, and talented direct overextends itself and never figures out how to tell its story. Cat's Meow is comfortable being a small movie, but as a result of its sometimes spotty cast and single setting and script-that-was-a-play, it comes across as slight. RKO-281 is actually the best of these three pictures, but it suffers from a combination of the problems of the other two films it wants to tell a really big story, but for some reason it tries to tell the story in less than an hour and a half. I could happily have watched thirty minutes more of the movie had it allowed me to better understand the characters.

RKO-281 opens with an homage to Citizen Kane's March of Time opening. However, rather than recounting the events of a great man's life at the moment of his death, RKO-281 begins just as Orson Welles (Schreiber) has established his reputation as the Boy Genius (or Christ Child) of radio and Broadway, but has a contract with RKO Studios that he seems incapable of filling. Everybody wants Welles to just film War of the Worlds, but Welles has greater aspirations. After his Heart of Darkness project (which he would circle over and over again in his career) falls through, Welles is at a loss. Invited to a party at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst's (James Cromwell) palatial estate, by Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich), a drunk writer without a credit in four years, Welles becomes fascinated by the media magnate. He becomes fascinated by Hearst's mistress, the actress Marion Davies (Melanie Griffith). He becomes fascinated by Hearst's power. And mostly he becomes angered by Hearst's hypocracy and what Welles decides is a lack of soul. So Welles decides that a slightly veiled version of Hearst's life will be his movie. He convincing Mankiewicz to help him and ultimately to write the first draft of the script. And so begins the life of Citizen Kane. The film progresses to the filmming process, recounting such legendary events as Welles pulling apart the studio floor for one particular low angle shot and Welles and legendary DP Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham) watching Stagecoach over and over for ideas. But then finally, the film goes into the battle over Citizen Kane, the moment at which Hearst decides that the film must never see the light of day. All the while, the film's writer, John Logan and director, Benjamin Ross, seem to want to fully explore the characters of Welles and Hearst. 85 minutes just isn't enough time to do that chore properly.

RKO-281 is the kind of movie where nobody has casual conversation. The chatter ranges from the occasional witty one-liner to massive portentous speeches in public places. The characters are constantly grandstanding and telling epic stories. And normally this is a writing strategy that annoys me, but here, it probably makes sense. Welles and Hearst really were men who probably assumes that every word they said deserved to be recorded for posterity and thus spoke every word in bold. So I'll buy that this is a viable way to tell the story.

What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul? This proverb is central to the direction Logan and Ross want to take in their character exploration. Welles observes that the proverb is the theme of Citizen Kane. But we're left to wonder first, if it's the theme of Hearst's life, but final, we're also supposed to ponder if the words apply equally well to Welles himself.

The film's depiction of Hearst tries to walk a fine line. As well performed by Cromwell (who's much too thin to be playing this part, but whatever...), Hearst is a near-Fascist Hitler apologist and Anti-Semite, who tries to expand his media empire to cover the world even as his debts pile up. He's also a rigid moralist who still loves his much-younger drunk mistress, whose career he largely shaped and destroyed. But while Logan is content to have Hearst as the heavy, he also attempts to win sympathy for the man. The fact that Cromwell is inherently sympathetic (the man sang to Babe, for heaven's sake!) helps the cause, but the film needed a few minutes more on this great character.

Logan and Ross depict Welles as both a genius and a bit of a prick, a man so absorbed by his own genius that he forgets his place and his youth. The Welles in RKO-281 is essentially a magician, an illusionist, a snake oil salesman. What does Welles actually want? What does Welles actually believe? It's tough to tell and I think that's intentional. We leave him at the end of the film ever-aware that at the age of 26, Welles will never make a better movie and that he'll never have the same control over a film ever again. He has gained the world, but lost his future.

Schreiber largely makes very good choices with his performance as Welles. He's at his best went he plays up the man's inexperience and presents a man who actually believes his own false bravado. Sometimes Schreiber has Welles's voice down pat, but other times it lapses. No bother. It's a very strong piece of acting. Fine work is also turned in by Malkovich and Roy Scheider. As Marion Davies, Griffith gives what is certainly her best performance since Working Girl. Her Davies is a child-bride grown up and yet embittered by never having been truly married. Griffith's little-girl voice is perfect here and she also gives the part a harder edge of resignation. Less effective performances include Brenda Blethyn as Louella Parsons (we need more of her or else the character makes no sense) and all of the actors who play the old studio heads as a gang of stereotypical Jews. It's possible to be Jewish without performing as a Jew is "supposed" to act.

With everything, I wanted a little bit more. This speaks will of the film in a general sense. Ross's direction captures the Classical Hollywood feel, with a few modern flourishes and everything is encouraged by John Altman's few score. But this fine depiction of a great story merely whets your appetite for more. Logan and Ross needed to choose which of the supporting characters deserved expanded treatment and I'd have liked more Toland, and more of Geroge Schaefer, and more of John Houseman. Etc. My score is really more of a 3.5 than a 4, but I've gotta retain the 4 rating for when I have few reservations. Still, I recommend this fine HBO original movie.


Recommend this product? Yes

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