It’s a shame that Citizen Kane has a reputation as “the greatest movie ever made”, as a pinnacle of cinematic art. It’s not an art film at all — it’s a grand entertainment, a rattling good melodrama, a work of meticulous craft and wit and joy in the multifarious resources of movies. When you’re watching it, its reputation becomes quite irrelevant because it’s just so damn much fun.
It uses every technique in the cinematic handbook — back-screen projections, matte paintings, stock footage, miniatures. Its greatest glories are its magnificently lit, long-playing, deep-focus, elegantly choreographed studio shots, which are the things most people remember because they’re so beautiful and so involving that you feel you’re inhabiting the imaginary spaces they conjure up.
Those shots constitute the real art of the film, but they’re always in service to the story, to the theatrical but finely calculated and consistently engaging performances. There’s nothing pretentious about the film at all — it’s built to please, to amuse and to move. It has made generations of young people want to become filmmakers, if not always to be great entertainers of the public, because it makes filmmaking look like the best way in the world to have fun, to create magic.
It’s a throwback to the pre-modernist notion that the greatest art is popular art, accessible art, the highest form of entertainment — a notion that informs the works of Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens. That’s its true distinction and the source of its enduring stature in the culture. The Blu-ray edition of it belongs in every civilized home.