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I Watched ‘Citizen Kane’ for the First Time. Then I Had an Existential Crisis.

Orson Welles’s movie is considered one of the best films ever, but for one journalist, it’s more a sign that as much as things in media change, they stay the same

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It began with a simple question. “Any brave souls in here willing to admit they’ve never seen Citizen Kane?” Ringer senior editor Andrew Gruttadaro asked via Slack last month.

The response to the seemingly innocuous prompt was muted; we’re talking 11-yellow-handshake-emojis-type muted. What I didn’t know then, but would soon find out, is that if you respond to Andrew Gruttadaro, you should be ready to write for Andrew Gruttadaro—and that the imminent release of David Fincher’s Mank on Netflix is a national holiday at The Ringer. Mank is the ultimate man movie: prestige-y Oscar bait, about the film that many consider the greatest of all time, and featuring a beloved English actor transforming himself into a self-loathing drunkard who can’t help but sabotage himself at every turn.

So on a dreary Monday night, my sober and exhausted eyes stared at that HBO Max screen, ready to meet Andrew’s request. For the next two hours, I was to document the emotional journey of watching Citizen Kane for the first time.

My past youthful exuberance for tearing down beloved cultural touchstones preceded me and led to a plea from my day-to-day editor, Justin Sayles. “Please just don’t call it boring,” he said.

I obliged and assured Justin that I wasn’t a hack.

One hundred and nineteen minutes and an unintended nap later, there was no need for any searing takes. I didn’t leave Citizen Kane with the sense that I had just watched the greatest movie of all time, but more so that I’d witnessed a dispiriting and timeless truth. Citizen Kane is a story about many things—most acutely the gnawing pursuit of love and the dour possibility that, by design, most people in media are incapable of finding it.

Citizen Kane’s monolithic importance means people tend to gloss over the nitty-gritty elements of its plot in favor of debating the esoteric. Through 27 years of cultural osmosis, I knew to look out for a sled in the same way most people intrinsically understand that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father even if they’ve never watched The Empire Strikes Back. Nearly a century of film writing had boiled down the Orson Welles drama into emotionless parts—who wrote what, remember that “Rosebud” twist, what films cribbed this shot or that bit of nonlinear storytelling.

For all of its grandeur, the story written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (the Mank of Mank) and Welles is simple. Charles Foster Kane, one of the richest men alive, dies alone. His last word is “Rosebud.” Jerry Thompson, a new kind of reporter—less concerned with static newspapers and more interested in the immediate entertainment of magazines and theater reels—is tasked with finding out who or what “Rosebud” is. From there, Thompson talks to a host of unreliable narrators including Kane’s ex-wife, manager, best friend, and former legal guardian. The only thing the motley crew can agree on is that the narcissistic Kane was obsessed with finding love, despite his inability to ever love anything besides himself.

But watching the story of Charles Foster Kane—a character widely believed to be based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst—I felt that I was experiencing a bleak monument to the unchanging nature of both a man and, by extension, my profession. Citizen Kane specifically details the newspaper industry of the 1920s, but could just as easily be about any age.

At its most entertaining, Citizen Kane is a workplace comedy about one of the world’s most self-obsessed art forms. There’s a marginally talented music critic named Jedediah Leland, who was hired at the New York Daily Inquirer because he knows Kane from college. Leland is relatable—he calls a singer’s voice mid, gets too drunk to file his review on time, and is fired because Kane is dating the singer. At one point, Kane looks at a photo of the most talented reporters working at his competitor, The Chronicle. The collection of minds took 20 years to build. Instead of assembling a newsroom to compete, he simply buys the men (and yes, they’re all men) from The Chronicle and decides to throw a party to celebrate his conquest before stripping his newly hired stooges of the very talent that made them so coveted in the first place. The feeling that at some point or other most people in my generation were traded just as these men were elicited a chuckle.

“Do we stand for the same things The Chronicle stands for, Bernstein?” Leland says at the party.

“Certainly not. Listen, Mr. Kane, he’ll have them changed to his kind of newspapermen in a week,” Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s manager, responds.

Swap Charles Foster Kane’s love of yellow journalism with any monumental change of the last 20 years—the bygone blogging boom, the listicle avalanche, the pivot to video, our current Substack migration—and the general philosophical notes would still remain true. Over 70 years later, very little has changed about journalism. The bumbling editors remain, publishers still run their papers into the ground and then sell the parts off to wealthy investors, and the singular belief that “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough” feels relevant today. It’s not hard to see why a sentimental story about the media has become so beloved by the media.

But ultimately, the act of consuming Citizen Kane felt futile, much like Jerry Thompson’s search for the meaning of “Rosebud.” Welles’s feature-length directorial debut had come to mean so much to so many people that trying to approach it with any semblance of clarity felt meaningless. My eventual warmth for the movie wasn’t rooted in nostalgia, but more in the comforting realization that watching a once-great—albeit fictional—man succumb to his insignificance made me feel better about my own.

In one of the most delightful (but overacted parts) of the film, a hammy, makeup-caked Joseph Cotten stares into Thompson. “I can remember absolutely everything, young man,” he says. “That’s my curse. That’s one of the greatest curses ever inflicted on the human race: memory.” By the movie’s end, when Rosebud is revealed to be Kane’s childhood sled and a symbol of his lost youth, my own memories returned. In 2007, I watched the AFI 100 Years ... 100 Movies TV special rank Citizen Kane as the most important movie of all time with a tinge of disdain. Even as a teenager I had a distrust of canons and the mostly male white critics that made and protected them. Thankfully, none of that really mattered. Nearly 80 years after Citizen Kane was made, watching that sled burn made me want to burn everything around me less.