Citizen Kane; a Modern Tragedy


A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down and watch this movie for the first time.  It was on Turner Classic Movies the same night as The Emmys.  I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a movie buff but I do love a good story and I really hate awards shows.  I find the whole concept of awards shows to be ego driven and narcissistic, two things I just can’t stand so I avoid them at all cost.   To me the most meaningful awards are given in private, between a few close associates, but that’s a post for another time.

I want to talk about Citizen Kane.

The film was released in the spring of 1941 just as America was emerging from the Great Depression but before the attack on Pearl Harbour that brought them in to WWII.  It was a time when the American psyche was peppered with a healthy scepticism of immodest wealth.  Not unlike today when you think about it.

The narrative follows the rise and fall of media tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) who, as the film opens, dies alone in his vast Florida estate surrounded by priceless objects of art and the trappings of success.  He was holding a snow globe and as it drops from his lifeless hand he whispers the word “Rosebud”.

The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks as a newsreel reporter named Jerry Thompson (William Alland) interviews figures from Kane’s past and seeks to find the meaning of his last word.  In the end Thompson gives up stating; “Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it.  Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost.”

As the credits begin to roll the camera pans back across Kane’s vast collection of priceless art and other possessions, the audience’s attention is drawn to a child’s snow sled as it is tossed into the furnace; the name on the sled is Rosebud.  As the sled burns the image is unmistakable, it is what he lost and alludes to his childhood as the only time in his life when Kane was truly happy.

I’ve been unpacking the message of Citizen Kane for the past several days and one bible verse has kept coming to mind;

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? [Jesus; Mark 8:36]

You see, Meekonomics is based on the promise that the meek will inherit the whole world.  But what does that mean and what good is it if it costs us the one thing we take with us into eternity?

Charles Foster Kane was anything but meek.  He was brash, bold and extremely confident in himself but there are points within the story, especially early on where the audience gets a glimpse of his soul.

Charles Foster Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Walter Thatcher: Don’t you think you are?
Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
Thatcher: What would you like to have been?
Kane: Everything you hate.

And what was it that Thatcher hated?

Thatcher was the man who educated Kane, his  mentor and his guardian.  He was a lawyer who managed Kane’s money until he turned 25.  When Kane finished college and returned to New York to run a newspaper he wanted to use it as a platform to tell people the truth, no matter how ugly.  One of the things Thatcher hated was the truth.

Thatcher tried to teach Kane that rich men need to use their wealth to manipulate the truth and impose their will on lesser individuals.  Until his death Thatcher and Kane would be at odds on this point but in the end Thatcher’s vision won out.  The lure of money and power eventually seduced Kane into become exactly what Thatcher wanted; a rich man who was incapable of seeing just how much money and power effect the lives of countless people we may never meet.

When a middle aged Kane tries to garner support for the Spanish American War he is asked what his readers will think, “They’ll think what I tell them to think!” is his thundered response.   It’s clear at this point Kane has lost touch with the common man and can no longer see the effect his wealth has beyond what it can do for him.  Kane doesn’t give a second thought to the lives that will be lost and the immeasurable suffering war will bring, he sees only the increase in the value of his holdings that can be gained.  Sound familiar?

How many Kane’s are there today?  How many men on Wall Street, and Main Street for that matter, are there who measure life only by the balance sheet?  We are taught to “save for the future” but what future and at what cost?  Every dollar saved is a dollar not spent.  Spending money is what moves the economy, it’s what transfers wealth from one individual to another.  In short spending is what money is for!

Yes of course you need to have enough money saved up in order to survive through leaner times and through those years after we’ve all stopped working.  But how much is enough?  When does saving money stop being a responsible act of self preservation and become the sin of greed?  With over a billion people on earth surviving on less than one dollar per day it’s important to note that every dollar saved for your future is a dollar that someone else could use right now.

Don’t ever forget that spending money or just giving it away is as much of an act of love as anything you can do for someone else.  You may never see or even think about the people you are helping by doing this but there is always a person at the other end of every transaction.  The money you spend should always benefit that person not cause harm.

A Meekonomist knows and is mindful of the difference.

In one of the last scenes in the film Kane’s second wife Susan grows tired of living life isolated in a cold mansion that none of their former friends ever visits, so she decides to leave him.  He pleads with her not to go and tells her, perhaps for the first time, that he loves her but it is too late;

Susan Kane: Love! You don’t love anybody! Me or anybody else! You want to be loved – that’s all you want! I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want – just name it and it’s yours! Only love me! Don’t expect me to love you.

Susan walks out of his life and Kane is left to rot in complete isolation, surrounded only by his possessions and a small staff for the rest of his life.

Citizen Kane is a Hollywood Classic but it is also a modern tragedy.  A tragedy that continues to unfold daily in the lives of countless individuals who fail to understand the true value and purpose of money;

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? [Jesus; Matthew 6:26]

Thompson: He made an awful lot of money.
Bernstein: Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money… if what you want to do is make a lot of money.

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5 thoughts on “Citizen Kane; a Modern Tragedy

  1. The meek shall inherit the world, but that doesn’t mean material wealth of the world, but that, being “meek”, they’re in a better position to realise what’s really important in the world and have a increased chance to attain happiness in it.

  2. Many of the world’s greatest tragedies involve someone who comes to a crossroads … and chooses the wrong path. Citizen Kane is based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who whipped up American sentiment behind the Spanish American War, had an affair with an actress and built an incredible mansion … and spent his last days alone

    • Most tragredies are based in history and truth – Hamlet and Julius Ceasar immediately come to mind. The fact that similar events actually did happen make the stories all the more compelling don’t you think?

  3. After reading Citizen Kane; a Modern Tragedy The Meekonomics Project I decided to post a nice note for author. Keep up the great work, I hope to read soon similar blog posts. Also your site loads up fast!

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