The American Experience: The Battle Over Citizen Kane

on January 29, 1996 by L.L.
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   "The Battle Over `Citizen Kane'" chronicles an important chapter in American movie history: the efforts made by William Randolph Hearst to suppress Orson Welles' masterful, thinly-veiled biography of Hearst's life. This documentary might have been a spectacular film, were it not for several factors going against it.
   First, "Battle" rests on a tenuous premise: a comparison between Hearst and Welles that paints both men as power-obsessed and egocentric. It makes for a tidy (if facile) analogy, but Welles and Hearst were hardly cut from the same ideological cloth.
   Second, "Battle" was made about 20 years too late. Only a few acquaintances of Hearst and Welles participated in the project, since most are now deceased. Had other key players been around to offer insight and commentary, the film would have benefitted greatly.
   Finally, there is not enough direct emphasis on either Hearst or Welles. Some of the newsreel footage of Hearst is fascinating, and there are snippets of interviews with Welles, but it would have been useful dramatically and far more enlightening to see more of them.
   "Battle" contains some moments of revelation, among them rare footage of one of Welles' most controversial stage productions--an all-black "MacBeth," which Welles reset in Haiti. But by far the most remarkable moments of this documentary remain the still-fresh, always lively excerpts from "Citizen Kane," next to which the actual newsreel footage of Hearst seems both stolid and uninspired.    Directed by Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein. Written by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon. Produced by Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein for "The American Experience." Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 120 min.
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