Somehow, this whole Citizen Kane comparison thing has gotten way ahead of itself. When Inception came out and was hailed as “masterpiece” it angered critics, and viewers, that anyone would dare use a word like that to describe a big studio movie out of Warner Bros. Or maybe it was that the word shouldn’t really be applied to a film until a decade or so has gone by. Hitchcock’s films, masterpieces though they may be, weren’t called such until many years later. If they improve over time, reveal more about themselves to future audiences, they have resonance beyond their moment of impact.
Nothing can kill a film faster than a premature ejaculation of adulation. Premature because once audience members and, more importantly, guild and Academy members start seeing it, they might find it doesn’t live up to the promise. Now The Social Network not only has to live up to its own praise, but it has the additional burden having to be “as good as Citizen Kane.”
To compare the film to Citizen Kane in terms of it being “the best film ever made” is, as Andrew O’Herir says in his Social Network review (a good one worth reading), does a disservice to both films. The only reason Citizen Kane was brought up, I believe, was because both films take a powerful American icon and recycle them as American myths. Storytelling at its absolute best.
You don’t get better than Citizen Kane.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched Citizen Kane looking for a flaw. I keep expecting to find a single lapse in the seamless directing, the acting, the writing – one never emerges. What emerges instead is layers of unseen brilliance; I notice something new about the film every time I watch it, even when I look at stills from the film.
There are a hundred ways The Social Network and Citizen Kane part ways and one of those is simply the shot set-ups. Working with the cinematic genius Gregg Toland, Welles, all of 24, built out each shot with artistic precision and the composition of an impressionist painter. I don’t ever forsee any film topping it in terms of the way it’s shot. I also don’t forsee anyone topping Welles himself, performing Kane at all ages, writing it and directing it.
So, you really just can’t “go there.” But there are so many works of untouchable art, one doesn’t know where to begin. The instant you compare something current to something sacred, it is bound to ruffle a few feathers.
The Social Network shares with Citizen Kane the main idea of using a public figure, or an American icon, to tell an American story.¬† But it stops there for me. I see no similarities between the film Welles made to the film Fincher made. Fincher’s film is his own thumbprint. Welles’ film is, well, the greatest film ever made.
So, I really hope people stop comparing the two films – because that misses the point. They are different movies for different times. They both tell stories that bob back and forth between modern day and flashback. But Kane is about getting to the bottom of a mystery. The Social Network is not. There is no mystery to be solved. It’s a story about the last five years of American history, perhaps even global history – and it is something to punt us into the future. We don’t know how this is all going to end. But now, thanks to Fincher and Sorkin, we know how it began.
So how are they similar?
1. They are both great films.
2. They are both fictional, symbolic recreations of real people turned into myths.
3. They both were made despite the objections of their subject – Zuckerberg just refused to authorize or collaborate; William Randolph Hearst used his might to try to shut down Citizen Kane.
4. They are both directed by visionaries.
5. They both play with time, flashbacks and modern day.
6. They are both about love – the need for it, the lack of it.
7. They both isolate the anti-hero by the end.
8. Their anti-hero’s ambition and success never bought them what they most wanted and needed – the broader theme: money can’t buy happiness.
8. Their anti-hero’s, in many ways, were undone by their own folly. They make mistakes they can’t take back.
9. They are envied, hated, worshipped and in constant demand.
10. Both films have excellent writing/directing/acting.
How the films are different:
1. Citizen Kane was co-written, directed and acted by the same person, Orson Welles. Fincher collaborated with Aaron Sorkin and Jesse Eisenberg. Those are two key differences. It is easier to foist our dreams onto one person, Welles. With Social Network, one person doesn’t take credit.
2. Cinematically, no film has ever achieved what Citizen Kane achieved. They did not waste a single frame. Every shot was meticulously constructed and it shows.
3. Citizen Kane is about a person who was thrust into his wealth not by his own doing and had to try to make himself a useful human being — he failed miserably at it. The Social Network is about a self-made millionaire who succeeded on his own smarts, intuition, and cut-throat competitive streak (both of these characters are quintessentially American).
4. Kane was shaped by his failures. Zuckerberg is not.
5. When Citizen Kane came out it didn’t make a lot of money. The Hearst reach was so powerful it influenced every aspect of Kane’s lack of success up to and including the Oscars. How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane. Such power can’t be executed now. There is no one in publishing, or online as powerful as Kane was then. Zuckerberg comes close.
6. Kane had many failed relationships, or at least two significant ones. Zuckerberg starts and ends with one. Though he seeks to validate himself and prove himself to his ex-girlfriend, he doesn’t have women continually leaving him the way Kane does.
7. Zuckerberg succeeds for himself only; Kane wants others to succeed and then to take the credit for it.
8. Kane is in black and white and doesn’t suffer for it. The Social Network is in color. And doesn’t suffer for it.
9. At the time Kane came out, Welles was an up and coming punk who hadn’t yet been hailed as the genius we know him today. Fincher has long been thought of as a cinematic genius. He need only live up to that, something Welles struggled with in his later years.
10. Citizen Kane remains the best film ever made on many lists by critics and fans alike. It will take several decades to find out where The Social Network ultimately sits.