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‘RKO 281’ Film Review: A film about a film about a man

“RKO 281” offers a vividly compelling presentation of the troubled history behind Orson Welles and his magnum opus “Citizen Kane.”

This historical drama about the so-called “boy wonder” helming a film inspired by the life of a powerful man highlights the ego clashes and politics surrounding Hollywood. As a cinematic offering, it frames itself as a dramatically sound genesis of what is often described as “The Greatest American Film of All Time” through its amalgam of fictional recreations and historical accounts partly based on the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” by Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon.

In exploring the history of the young Welles’ development of his debut film that would ultimately become his magnum opus, the narrative effectively manages its creative liberties. It ventures into the complex motivations and the contradictory and comparable personalities of two powerful, bull-headed characters – Orson Welles and his “unlikely muse” William Randolph Hearst. These two aptly push the myriad of factors affecting the production and the release of “RKO 281,” which would then become “Citizen Kane.” Director Benjamin Ross and screenwriter John Logan create a mash-up of Welles and his motion-picture project through scenes rendering a “film within a film” that both functions as “art imitates life” and “life imitates art.” What makes this story more interesting is the fact that its themes and characters all live within the domain of the culture and media industries: film professionals vs. a media tycoon fighting over an artistic creation of what many would say is a disguised biopic full of incendiary stories surrounding a stalwart publisher with penchant for collecting artistic treasures.

In this film, the combustible egos of a self-proclaimed genius in his prime and a capricious newspaper mogul in his sunset years turn out as a legendary clash of titans in the Hollywood arena. The narrative orchestrates parallel personal histories for that clean-cut cinematic collision between art and commerce. It capitalizes on how Hollywood gave a rebellious filmmaking rookie complete control over his first project and how his work was nearly burned right before its release. Yet, what really weaves the story’s dramatic structure is Welles’ hero-sidekick relationship with his co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. This offers a neat layout of how “Citizen Kane” came into existence, while also tapping into the youthful fire of Welles in challenging the system on his own terms vs. the burned-out stature of Mankiewicz as a Hollywood name way past his prime. 

Liev Schreiber turns in a fascinating performance as Orson Welles – a charmer and a monster full of vim and vigor and coming head-to-head against a horrible capitalist who, in one layer of the storytelling, seems to suggest what Welles could eventually be, as aptly wrapped up in the Welles-Hearst elevator scene. Schreiber channels Welles as both charismatic and despotic, a young artistic genius freely plunging into such an ambitious route with his own brand of tyranny. He makes no pretenses to imitate Welles’ heroic yet megalomaniacal intensity, which is very much prone to the fabrication of a mere caricatured distortion of an icon in the wrong hands. Instead, he creates his own Welles with his booming voice and theatrical flourish – carefully treading in the man’s most modest, most dreaded, and most victorious moments. He strides between the thin line separating the character of the angel and the devil, which the storytelling calls for to compellingly examine the richness and contradictions of his character.

James Cromwell as William Randolph Hearst plays his role with uncanny restraint. A glory-hound businessman full of haughty pride, he wears a political mask whose buying power speaks volumes about his potent position in the limelight. He uses his machinery to destroy his young adversary, which coincides with the fact that he is on the verge of bankruptcy. Melanie Griffith as the melancholy lover and Hollywood dreamer Marion Davies tempers Hearst’s intended one-dimensional persona with fitting humanity and without resorting to a merely objectified mistress character. She offers that fine mix of remarkable sweetness and self-awareness that helps thicken the sense of compassion needed by the narrative’s mundane and emotional undertakings. John Malkovich as Herman Mankiewicz offers a familiar prickliness on screen, at times paving way to frolicking verbal duels with Welles for the story to progress. There seems to be a bit of restriction on the part of Malkovich in his role, which could have added more depth and psychological reckoning to his discussions and arguments with his partner in crime. But perhaps, it’s more of a conscious choice to have that bit of reservation so as not to overpower the Welles character arc on screen. In any case, he still works as a supporting character pushing the narrative forward. Roy Scheider as the courageous and powerful yet fittingly reluctant RKO executive George Schaefer exudes the persona of a neglected hero in the history of the “Kane” production with his dignified investment on Welles’ dream project. His real objective in fully supporting Welles seems vague throughout the picture, but perhaps this is the intent to resemble that Hollywood haze on people’s personal motives and hidden agenda within the sphere of show business. Other supporting and minor characters rightfully contribute to the streamlined version of the events leading to the production and release of the acclaimed classic.

The rich and textured cinematography and expertly detailed production design pay respect to the cinematic glory of “Citizen Kane,” evoking that old Hollywood feel while promoting parallel delights to the very film it presents – interestingly, without leaving its modern audience lost in the bygone era’s own storytelling style. The sound design and musical score seamlessly blend with the visuals to captivate the whites, blacks, and grays of the Hollywood Studio system and the forces that run it. This picture takes advantage of its own dramatic structure to complete a puzzle filled with elements drawn from the production of the film in real life and the very film it explores, bringing forth the essence of its theme and topic closer to home. It shows how power creates and consumes in both the art and the business of filmmaking through the many types of spoiled appetites of Hollywood personalities presented on screen. It is, in itself, rounding up a crucial part of the life of Welles and the development of his masterpiece that eventually marked itself in the history of American cinema.

“RKO 281” clearly doesn’t aim to be a “Citizen Kane.” This production intends to be a supplement to “Citizen Kane” in examining the rich history of a film about a man and peppering it with dramatic images that resonate with greater meanings, including a reflection of the dynamics of the powers in America’s culture and media industries.

Works Cited:

Epstein, Michael, and Thomas Lennon. The Battle Over Citizen Kane. Films Transit International and Public Broadcasting Service, 1996.

Ross, Benjamin. RKO 281. HBO, 1999.

Welles, Orson. Citizen Kane. RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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