This week, David Fincher returns to feature-length filmmaking for the first time in six years with the release of “Mank.”

This is a passion project for the director with a script written by his late father. The story focuses on 1930s writer Herman Mankiewicz and his efforts to bring the film classic “Citizen Kane” to the screen despite the film’s controversial subject matter and the writer’s struggle with alcohol.

One might ask why it is relevant to explore the tortured process of making a film that premiered almost 80 years ago. Perhaps you’ve never seen “Citizen Kane.” Or perhaps it’s been awhile. That was the case for me until recently.

Watching it again, there’s a modern vividness to director Orson Welles’ masterwork. Not simply in its technical innovation but also in its nature; a depiction of wealth and power that could have easily been made in 2020.

The story is of Charles Foster Kane, a rich man with a tortured childhood. He learned mass media would not only make him money, but bring him attention. He ran for office but his personal demons thwarted his efforts. Married and divorced, he tried to buy the love and adoration of others. In the end, what made him successful corrupted everything around him. He lived, and died, in the shadow of his affluence and under the weight of his own name.

Welles based Kane on the notorious print tycoon William Randolph Hearst, an inescapable influence on American culture. He created “fake news” against his enemies and saw his network of newspapers and radio stations as a way of pulling the levers of influence. He used words as his primary weapon in the battle of capitalism.

Going after Hearst was a professional risk for Welles and Mankiewicz. “Kane” could not be mentioned by Hearst’s reporters. He abhorred the portrayal of a bitter, power-hungry man with an untalented mistress. Mankiewicz himself had a friendship with Hearst and his girlfriend Marion Davies, and borrowed heavily from this intimate knowledge for his script.

You can look at Kane – or Hearst – and see elements of Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner. But there are flourishes of our president, a megalomaniac who craves the public’s adoration and who can manipulate the media better than almost any politician who has come before him.

In fact, stop reading this column for a second and Google “Trump and Citizen Kane.”

Several years ago, Donald Trump talked about “Kane,” and why he thought it was a classic film. Trump spoke of the isolating power of wealth. How it impacts relationships. Maybe, Trump speculated, Kane’s biggest problem was picking the right woman.

This brief interview is not only pretty good film criticism, but offers a side of President Trump we don’t see much these days. Contemplative, thoughtful. Self-reflection and even a bit of self-criticism. Even a viewer like Trump, with his brio and bluster, is caught off-guard by what he sees in “Citizen Kane.”

Watching the film this past week, I was struck by one scene in particular. Upon learning of Kane’s fortunes as a gubernatorial candidate, his newspapers’ editors consider two headlines. “Kane Wins” or “Fraud at the Polls.” Knowing their boss has lost and that he isn't gracious in defeat, they go with the latter print. Again, breathtakingly relevant.

Welles meant to send a warning about men who saw information as a source of undue influence. When Kane says, “I know a thing or two about how the common man thinks,” it’s a threat.

Kane understands news is not simply there to report the happenings of the world, but to mold it and to shape it. There can be a personal or a political agenda to such mechanisms.

But “Citizen Kane” is not about social harm. No, not necessarily. This is a story of the corruption of greed and desire on the individual level. This is about self-destruction. Welles, in his satire, wanted Hearst to see that his demise was staring at him from the screen.

If you watch the film and wonder why it looks so modern, it’s because several techniques developed by the 26-year-old Welles are still used to this day. Ambient light to create shadows. Deep focus that allows the background and foreground to share equal clarity. Ceilings! You’d never seen ceilings in a movie until Welles used them to make his sets more realistic.

Simply put, it’s a technical marvel that allows the film to hold up and probably remains the best first film of any filmmaker in history.

Despite the time that’s passed since its release, the film feels urgent. Before “Mank” comes to Ragtag Cinema later in the month, or drops on Netflix in December, I would challenge you to (re)discover it as a reflection on our current media-mad, politically-wild times.

In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: 'Citizen Kane' is the best movie of 2020


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