Director: Michael Epstein, Thomas Lennon
Cast: David McCullough, Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst, Richard Ben Cramer
Have I Seen it Before: Oh, God Yes.
Did I Like It: Like is such a pedestrian term. There are few films—and certainly fewer documentaries—that so thoroughly injected itself into my DNA.
On its surface, The Battle Over Citizen Kane is an almost shallow examination about the beautiful, perfect wreck that was Orson Welles’ first feature motion picture Citizen Kane (1941). I’m one of the unusual people that might view this as a vice, but I can also sense that it is not an objective flaw, and certainly not a fatal one.
Really, the film was made at exactly the right time. Twenty years ago, plenty of people who worked with Orson were still alive and their memories incredibly sharp. It may have been one of the last opportunities to get first-person narratives of Welles during those early, heady years. All of the talking heads regarding Hearst are from historians or biographers, and while they have interesting insight, they are far less vibrant than the insights into Welles.
And then there’s that one shot at the very end of the film that—more than any other element in life—caused me to spend more time than I would have liked questioning a creative life. Orson puts it bluntly. Spending all of your time begging for the things you need to realize your vision was a terrible way to spend a life. He wished he could have done anything else.
As raw B-roll of an interview, the moment very well may have been an aside. It wouldn’t have been worthy of note other than a vague sense that Welles had a melancholy streak later in life. As the thesis of an entire film, it’s chilling. It is expert-level documentary filmmaking.
And yet, as I watch the documentary now, I’m struck by another talking head from the man himself. It appears to be from the same interview filmed just a few years before his death, and he seems amused by the scrambling train wreck that his life had become. That might be an important thing for me to remember, both as I keep telling my version of Orson’s story, and in my own life. It’s absolutely possible to be both amused and have regret fro the more seminal moments of ones life. There’s even an extra moment in that moment at the end where he says he can’t regret his regrets, because it was like staying married to a woman he might not have otherwise. He loved the movies, and it wasn’t that he couldn’t walk away from it. He wouldn’t.
Everyone wants you to think the story of Orson Welles is a tragedy. Sure, there is unrealized potential over the course of his life, but I’m not so sure he felt the whole thing was a tragedy. Not all of it.