‘Citizen Kane’: All that it’s cracked up to be?


Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by Orson Welles

6.5/10  PG

The American Film Institute’s greatest American film of all-time, Citizen Kane, is on my chopping block today. Never the one to hop on bandwagons (disregarding Titanic and Avatar), I will not give AFI any credit for their choice of the number one film. I’ll admit, I have never been a huge fan of old films. Anything before 1970 turned me off. But this year, as you can see by my reviews, I have begun to enjoy some of the classics, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Rear Window. Therefore, this 1941 film’s age is not the reason for my genuine distaste.

When newspaper tycoon Charlie “Citizen” Kane (Orson Welles as actor, director, and co-writer for the film) dies in old age, the world both mourns and rejoices at the loss. The news crews, forever changed by the fictional man’s work in the field, wanted a deeper twist to the story of his death. A fairly boring death, Kane uttered a single word, “Rosebud,” on his deathbed. The crew delved deep into the life, interviewing those who knew him and reading diaries of those who had passed before him. A life of tremendous gains and tremendous losses, Citizen Kane lived a remarkable life. But did they find the answers for which they searched? What…or who…was this Rosebud?


Hundreds of thousands of films have been made in America. AFI chose 100 top American movies. For reference, Shawshank Redemption—ranked number 1 by IMDb users (a list that Citizen Kane ranks 38th on)—is 72nd according to AFI. In their top 10, none were made after 1993. Only one was made after 1980. The first time a 21st century film (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) makes the list is at number 50. Silence of the Lambs, winner of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, is 74th. It’s one of only three movies to win the coveted “Big Five” Oscars, and it is 74th. Citizen Kane is number one. Citizen Kane wasn’t even good enough in 1941, losing Best Picture to How Green was My Valley (I’ve never even heard of that!). Now I’m sure the list has been met with its share of controversy, but it’s not enough. This movie is good, but not by any means is it the best American film of all-time, and I would love it if someone could offer me an explanation of why exactly it is regarded so highly.


The acting, script (which won the film’s only Oscar), directing, set design, and cinematography are good. Good…not great, not terrific, and certainly not number one. If you are a film aficionado, you owe it to yourself to see the movie. Everyone should, simply because it is regarded so highly. Due to the extremely high expectations set by AFI, it is difficult to watch this movie and point out where it succeeds. The script is great, especially for 1941. But it’s very hard to think this movie is good when AFI thinks it is number one. All of the movies I regarded so highly, diminished to 30s and 50s and 74. I take personal offence. For once, I can barely write a decent review of the film because I knew it was regarded as the best of all-time. Just watch it for yourself; everyone deserves to enter this debate.

EDIT: Eight years on, I’m offended that I didn’t understand what makes “Citizen Kane” one of the greatest films of all time. Updated rating: 9.5/10

9 thoughts on “‘Citizen Kane’: All that it’s cracked up to be?

  1. I think the film is so highly regarded for its innovation in lighting, set design, cinematography. Read any film history and you will see how many ‘firsts” there were in this film, including low angle shots that revealed actual ceilings over the actor’s heads on interior shots. Nowadays that might seem trivial. But with the ceilings, lighting could not come from overhead- which had been the norm previously. That’s just one thing that comes to mind.

    1. Okay, I can understand that. Sets didn’t even have ceilings some of the time, so it makes sense. But didn’t The Wizard of Oz break conventions? Didn’t Avatar? Didn’t Casablanca? I can see the cinematography is great, but how is it the best movie of all time? The plot is less than terrific, and the acting isn’t perfect. I still don’t see the best ever…

      1. I might agree with you as to what film in 100 years or more of film can be considered the best of all time. But then why even have such lists? How do you quantify creativity? I have several favorite films of all time that I can watch over and over again and they are so disparate. How can you say one is better than another and should be #1 of all time? A partial list of films that I like equally and can watch over and over again: Casablanca, The Searchers, Psycho, Some Like It Hot, The Maltese Falcon, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Charade. Now, of that small list, which would I make #1? I haven’t a clue.

    2. That is a great point, making such a list would be extremely difficult. I suppose I can’t say my list would be correct, or that mine or any list wouldn’t be met with controversy. I guess that’s just in the fun of having such a list, debating the “winner.”

  2. Great point about expectations. I saw it and really liked it. It’s certainly among the best films I’ve ever seen, but my #1 slot is occupied by Some Like it Hot. I wrote a review over Citizen Kane awhile back, giving examples of its technical brilliance. I’m sorry you don’t feel the same way, but I understand it. Good luck in future old movie watching ventures, and I highly recommend Some LIke it Hot!

    1. I totally see the technical genius, the cinematography is great. But when judging for number 1 of all time, I don’t think you judge based just on that. They should take plot, acting, and directing into consideration as well. Not just how good it was for its time, how good it was compared to all other movies. In my opinion, all movies should have been on an equal level, and I don’t think it could be number 1 if they did that. I would give it to Forrest Gump or something like Titanic that also tooks leaps and bounds in technical genius, as well as plot and acting. Just my opinion!

  3. If you do a bit of research you’ll see just how influential the movie was. Before Citizen Kane, most movies were just like plays, but on a screen. Very wide shots or simple close ups.

    Orson Wells actually used specific shots or specific lenses for specific reasons. A Low Angle Shot shows a character higher that everyone else/the audience and gives him power. A High Angle Shot shows a character lower than everyone else and we ‘look down’ on him/her. The camera also does some very impressive movements through objects (ceiling window).

    The movie is impressive technically and for how it created a universal ‘standard’. It is more innovative than it is ‘good’ and it is more ‘good’ than it is engaging. Definitely the #1 for a reason but not one of my ‘personal’ favorites.

    1. I’ve since realized its tremendous innovation, but when I think of a number one movie I think you have to disregard any and all precedent. It can’t be based on how good it was in 1941 unless you make the list in 1941. The story isn’t very enthralling, and the supporting acting isn’t perfect. It’s a good movie, a fantastic one for 1941, but it can’t be the very best. Thanks for reading!

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