The story of the legendary battle between Orson Welles/RKO and William Randolph Hearst over “Citizen Kane”, “RKO 281” borrows heavily from the documentary “The Battle for Citizen Kane” but brings the story to life in a way that the documentary could not.
More than a parochial history lesson over the story of one film, “RKO 281” is a study of power and its abuse, as well as its power to poison those who would wield it. Desperate to hold on to his fading Xanadu, Hearst ignored the crumbling of his own empire to try to stop the film and dug deep into his barrel of tricks – ultimately only to find himself more intrinsically linked to the film than he probably would have been otherwise. Welles, for his part, destroyed his own career battling Hollywood to see his film made, nearly killed the studio that supported him and damaged the lives of most of his supporters along the way. In the end, he found himself a more fitting Charles Foster Kane than Hearst was.
The film is not all bleakness and despair, though. Liev Schreiber does a commendable job of capturing Welles’ charm and bravado while James Cromwell captures the spirit of Hearst. John Malkovich turns in another stellar performance as Welles’ collaborator, Herman Mankiewicz. The behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Citizen Kane” are both interesting and amusing as RKO’s George Schaefer (Roy Scheider) tries in vain to control his prodigy, while at the same time supporting him to the public and the studio leadership.
A must see for fans of the film, “RKO 281” is also a great watch for anybody interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood, as well as an interesting enough drama in its own right to give anybody something to watch.