RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane, among its many accomplishments, brilliantly captured the spirit of early-20th-century America, a land dominated by larger-than-life characters who seemed to change the shape of the nation through sheer force of will. The story behind Citizen Kane almost as effectively sets the tone for the century's second half. By playing off fears of commercial vulnerability, Hearst nearly suppressed, and could have destroyed, the film most frequently cited as the greatest single accomplishment of the medium. A timely bout of financial troubles worked against Hearst, but the pattern was set: The giants' empires would continue to dominate, only their power would shift to bottom-line-obsessed bean counters, more often than not at the expense of art. RKO 281, its name taken from the production code for Orson Welles' masterpiece, recounts the behind-the-scenes struggle that nearly did Kane in. An typically solid, star-packed HBO production, the film stars Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst, Melanie Griffith as Marion Davies, an especially good Brenda Blethyn as Hearst bulldog Louella Parsons, and John Malkovich as Herman Mankiewicz. Writer John Logan and director Benjamin Ross (The Young Poisoner's Handbook) open the film by drawing somewhat questionable parallels between Welles, his creation, and his adversary, but they ultimately resort to simply dramatizing the facts in typical HBO style. Still, with a cast this strong and a story this compelling, RKO 281 proves the style's viability. Even if it can't help but look especially flat given its central subject, its story remains timely.