Citizen Kane is one of the most philosophically intriguing films ever made, on several levels. It begins with the screening of a rather conventional newsreel which its producer finds unsatisfying. He assigns a journalist to interview several of Kane's closest friends, trying to solve the mystery of Kane's dying word ("Rosebud"), as a novel angle from which to get at two more fundamental issues: Who was Charles Foster Kane and what was the meaning of his life? The diverse points-of-view that his interviewees bring to these two questions illustrates Nietzsche's perspectivism with striking clarity.
The newsreel obituary painted Kane in larger than life terms as the greatest newspaper tycoon in history, and as a champion of U.S. interests (although it does note how he was branded both a communist and a fascist by his detractors). But something is missing in the profile. Ironically, when we find out in the final sequence that Rosebud was Kane's childhood sled, we have to agree with the journalist's opinion that solving the mystery would not have resolved the enigma of Kane's true identity.
Jerry Thompson (William Alland) begins his investigation at the Atlantic City nightclub where Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), Kane's second wife, is singing. She refuses to talk to him, so he next visits the Walter P. Thatcher Memorial library, exploring the memoirs of the deceased banker who became little Charlie's guardian. Thatcher was contacted by Mrs. Kane (Agnes Moorhead) when the seemingly worthless deed she got from a miner to pay for his room turned out to be for the site of the richest gold mine in Colorado. She wanted her son to receive an Eastern education, to prepare him to handle the sixth largest private fortune in the world, which he would control upon his 25th birthday. So, she sent him away with Thatcher, to be raised by a man with dollar signs for a heart.
From Thatcher's perspective, Charles Kane (Orson Welles, in a role that has eerie parallels to his own career) was simply a poor businessman, willing to lose a million dollars a year on his beloved newspaper. His profligate ways eventually caught up with him, and he had to sell much of his media empire in the years after his failed gubernatorial bid. Thatcher's story traces the rise and fall of a misguided newspaper magnate, with little insight into (and less love for) its subject. But since we are led to feel disdain for Thatcher, his opinion of Kane does not become our own.
Thatcher's negative take on Kane's life is then balanced out by the reminiscences of Mr. Bernstein, (Everett Sloan) Charlie's right hand man. He enjoys a comfortable life as Chairman of the Board, which affords him "nothing but time" to nostalgically reflect on the past. Bernstein's story focuses on the early days, when Kane took a minor publication called the Inquirer and built it into the most influential newspaper in New York, by stealing the staff of his primary rival and pursuing the most sensational kind of yellow journalism. Bernstein worshipped Kane, and we see his burgeoning media empire as it is just getting off the ground, through his friend's adoring eyes. Bernstein always had a good head for figures, and helped keep Kane's enterprises solvent and afloat, but his part of the story ends with Kane's first marriage. While admitting to Thompson that Kane helped fabricate the Spanish-American War (one of the parallels that made William Randolph Hearst so uncomfortable that he sought to buy up all prints of the movie and burn them), he justified it by observing that, if the United States had not fought that war, we would not have acquired the Panama Canal. This is a characteristically Nietzschean observation, highlighting the politics of power.
Bernstein suggests that Thompson go see Kane's other closest friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), who is finishing out his days in a municipal hospital. Leland still has hard feelings for Kane, who terminated both him and their friendship over Leland's unwillingness to write a positive review of Susan's operatic performance. But there is much ambivalence in Leland's telling of his part of the story, a mixture of bitterness and touching nostalgia.
Jed Leland was also with Kane from the first, admiring his college friend for the declaration of principles that ran on the cover of the first edition of the Inquirer. Kane began with the best of intentions, wanting to be seen as the champion of the working man, and resolving to take on the big corporations in their name. He even did so at first, costing himself millions as the stocks he held in the very corporations he was running exposés on plunged in value.
Two developments sour Leland on his friend. First, Kane marries Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), niece to the President of the United States. He quickly tires of her, neglecting her totally for the paper and for his newfound political career. He wants to be President, and runs for Governor of New York, as the perfect springboard to higher office. Kane's masterful campaign rips into his opponent mercilessly, while providing few specifics about what he would do differently; all the polls predict his victory.
But Kane had been carrying on a relatively innocent dalliance with Susan, then a clerk in a department store. Her working class tastes reminded him of his youth, and he enjoyed her companionship. When his opponent uncovers their affair, and threatens to go to the (rival) papers if Kane will not withdraw, he refuses to do so, and the public scandal costs him the election, as well as his wife and young son (who both die within the year in a car crash). Disillusioned by "the people" in whose name he campaigned, Kane abandons them, and the principles on which he founded his papers. Soon it becomes clear to Jedidiah that Kane really has nothing but contempt for "the people", and that he doesn't even care about his own family. On the day of Kane's crushing defeat, he asks to be transferred out of town to the Chicago branch, a request Kane grudgingly grants.
Undaunted, Kane marries Susan, who he originally liked for the guileless joy she took at the awkward shadow puppetry with which he distracted her from a toothache. Yet, to feed his immense ego (in Jed's view), he forces her to pursue a career as an opera singer. Her abilities are meager, yet Kane mounts a nationwide tour with her playing the lead in Aida. He builds an opera house in Chicago for her debut, the city where Leland is his theatrical reviewer. Susan is predictably abominable; Leland gets totally drunk, and passes out at the typewriter after writing the first few lines of a scathingly bad notice. When he comes to, Kane is finishing the review for him, continuing the negative tone of his original comments. Kane then fires him, and they never speak again. When Kane writes Leland after Susan moves out, Jed doesn't even respond.
Thompson returns to Susan Alexander Kane, hoping she will hold the key to the puzzle. She, too, is clueless about Rosebud, though surprisingly sympathetic in relating her part of Charlie's story (considering that the viewer can clearly tell that she has never recovered from his tyrannical dominance). Susan was a simple young woman of 22 when she met him. She liked to sing in the shower, and party with her friends, and Kane thrust her front and center upon the most demanding stages of all, the great opera houses of the world. When she fell on her face, he locked her up in his hermetically sealed paradise, Xanadu (modeled after the Hearst Mansion in San Simeon, California), and left her with little to do but assemble intricate puzzles and wonder what time it was in New York. She leaves him as a last resort, when his total self-obsession becomes insufferable. Yet, when Thompson remarks that he can't help but feel sorry for Kane, Susan admits that she does too.
The story ends with Thompson unable to uncover the significance of Kane's dying word. The audience, but not the investigator, gets to see the name on the sled as it is tossed into the flames and is consumed. Solving that puzzle, however, does little to answer our questions about Charles Foster Kane. Piecing together the four very different perspectives we are offered on him, we realize that who each person was and what each felt towards Kane had a powerful impact on how each remembered him. In correlating these diverse points of view, the credence we give to a person's perspective has a lot to do with our reaction to the person telling the story (hence we initially are led to admire Kane for the very traits for which Thatcher condemns him). Appreciating these variables leads us to suspect that none of them had a true (i.e. totally accurate and complete) picture of Kane, and that an adequate account of his identity, and the significance of his life, would somehow have to synthesize all such perspectives.