Citizen Kane: How It Changed The Way I Think About Success

From the printing business to politics, Charles Foster Kane’s ascension in a capitalist’s world illustrates both the beauties and the horrors that distort the true meaning of achievement.

Stories build connections. They’re a communal form of education. If history is our greatest teacher, then stories are the material from which history draws upon. History, no matter how bleak or cold it may be, is the truest storyteller that there is.

That said, it’s fair to say that the most popular, effective medium of storytelling is the cinema (though I’m sure some may disagree on the inclusion of “effective”). Now, movies are many things: forms of entertainment, an outlet for social gatherings, an excuse to down pounds of popcorn and gallons of soda on an annual basis. Yet, in their truest form, movies are visual representations of a story, or as an old English teacher once told me, they’re books brought to life (I disagree with this definition, even if there is some truth to it).

While I’ve always been fascinated by the cinematic & technical skills employed by creative visionaries to enhance their capacity for storytelling, my mind (which lacks the creative genius of such a visionary) generally resorts to dissecting the framework of a film’s narrative structure. So, as you & I embark on this fastidious journey to anatomize an unknown number of films, both of the past and present, let us ignite our own story by establishing an initial focus on what many people refer to as “the greatest movie you’ve never seen in your life”.

First, here’s what I knew about Citizen Kane prior to the first time watching it:

  1. It was “influenced” by the life of William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper mogul who amassed billions in personal wealth. Hearst was a rotten soul, even if some did revere him; he was also incredibly paranoid and fearful of any attempt at leeching from his awesome power.
  2. Orson Welles rose to fame due to his narration of War of the Worlds over the radio. It was done on Halloween night, 1938, and scared the hell out of millions of people. He was 22 then, and was 25 when Citizen Kane debuted.

Charles Kane, much like Hearst, was a man who feared death; ironically, the film begins with the audience watching Kane, well… die. However, Citizen Kane is not a movie that’s about death; rather, it’s a tale designed to help explain what it means to live.

Nearly every direction the story takes is dictated by a reporter’s quest to define what a singular word, Rosebud, meant in the life of Kane. We meet Charles in a moment of flux: his parents are handing over guardianship to a banker entrusted with building a trust for Charles (the family recently discovered gold via a mining deed). As Charles’s life is about to be upended, and his shrill mother educates him on his uncertain destiny, Charles responds by ramming his trusty sled into the stomach of the banker. Powerless, and in a moment of fear, Charles masks his feeling of terror with unmitigated rage. This would not be the last time in his life that he’d do this.

Gaining control of the trust at 25, Charles inherits a substantial sum of money. With such wealth, he takes control of a newspaper, The New York Inquirer, and quickly publishes a number of scandalous articles that are rebukes of his guardian, the banker. Succumbing to his grudge, and for all the city to see, the pieces prove quite popular among the people. Charles’s audience quickly grows... and so too does his capacity for power.

Alongside his best friend and staunch business partner, Kane’s establishment of a “newspaper with principles” gains the favor of thousands, if not millions, of avid readers.

Soon, the Inquirer’s profits compound its boldness and accelerate the paper’s descent into yellow journalism. Kane uses its voice to manipulate public opinion concerning the Spanish-American war, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the full capabilities of his power. Such a thirst power comes to blind Kane, so much so that he marries the niece of the President, thinking he’s overwhelmed by love. The rapid disintegration of their relationship comes as Kane campaigns for the office of Governor; the unearthing of an incendiary affair with a younger woman brings an end to Kane’s campaign and eviscerates his first marriage.

Allured by the idea of his second wife, an ambitious singer, Kane constructs a multi-million dollar theater in Chicago to showcase her talents. Her first performance is derailed by harsh, though accurate, critical review. Doubting even himself, Kane pens his own critique, which is perhaps the most chilling rebuke of all. Despite this, Kane still goes out of his way to target his best friend, a man who he had worked with since the inception of their business, and blame him in defense of his wife’s performance.

Their relationship forever fractured, Kane constructs a hideaway — a glorious castle— for he and his wife to occupy. Surrounded by the after-effects of Kane’s impulsive spending habits, she quickly leaves him. When she does this, Kane responds in a similar fashion as to when he was abandoned by his parents. Even without a wife & family, Kane still has his power; in fact, he has it all the way up until the day he dies.

Xanadu, the estate owned by Kane, is an illustration of the mogul’s lavish lifestyle… and disconnect from everyday society.

Through all of this, you might feel sorry for Charles Foster Kane. Sorry for his parents handing over guardianship of him to a stranger. Sorry for throwing away a pair of marriages to two strong, compassionate women. Sorry for being drunk with a power that he obviously had no idea how to maturely use. To tell you the truth, I do too, if only a bit.

Yet, why should one feel sorry for a person who was so successful, one who amassed so much wealth and bypassed numerous hurdles that most of us encounter on a daily basis? This, too, is a fair question to ponder.

What is truly intriguing about this narrative is the idea of Kane, for it is one open to substitution. What I mean by this is simple: very easily, we can replace the man that is Kane, and instead refer to this film as Citizen Zuckerberg, Citizen Bezos, Citizen Gates, and yes, Citizen Trump. All people with power. All people who have accumulated power at their own pace. And all people who, whether through their own admission or not, are petrified by the prospect of surrendering even an inkling of such power, no matter who or what it may be to.

I do not mean to say all this to push some agenda upon you. Believe me, I’m no political activist. In truth, I’m just a guy with a love for movies, but my love for stories is even greater. Stories are interchangeable; enough of them have been told for parallels to be drawn between some. The assassinations of Kennedy & Lincoln, the tragedies of the Titanic & the Vasa, the onset of the American & French revolutions. Perhaps it is here where the line “history often repeats itself” comes from; the story of Citizen Kane is one that certainly doesn’t lack relatives.

So no, I don’t feel sorry for Charles Kane… I feel sorry for the idea of Charles Kane.

His story is a cautionary tale, a warning to not get drunk with the power you possess, even if you’ve worked your entire life to achieve that power. Perhaps that’s why my heart did sink a bit when, at the end of the film, Kane’s childhood sled was thrown into an incinerator, and the words Rosebud melted before my very eyes. The only thing Kane ever loved in his life, this overlooked slab of wood, made me realize that success is not simply a quantification of power and wealth, nor is it a ledger of the various titles or positions you’ve occupied throughout life.

I’m not pretending to possess some novel definition for what “success” truly is; I’m simply saying all of this to tell you that when now, when I think of success, I think of those who supported me throughout my ambitious endeavor. I think about what legacy I’ve left, and if it’s one that I can look back on and feel a sense of pride about. And I think about how some things are more important than money and power, and though such things might not make the world green with envy, I can’t help but experience a feeling of satisfaction for all the joys I’ve had the humbling opportunity to experience, and a palpable excitement for all the others that lie ahead.

That’s what this story teaches me.

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