Telling true stories is always a tricky affair. Unlike simple fiction, you have to tell the truth *and* a good story simultaneously.
I don't know how good the *truth* is in RKO 281. I'm not a CITIZEN KANE expert. The closest I come is being able to mention that the screenplay is based on an acclaimed PBS documentary. If PBS' history was right, I guess, RKO 281 stands a better chance of being real as well.
I do know, however, that the *story* of RKO 281 is good enough that I want to *believe* it's the truth. In this current era of unrestricted parody and vigorously litigated free speech cases, it's hard to imagine a time in America where artistic criticism of a private individual would've caused movie studios consternation, but RKO 281 convincingly captures the fear of the period. Along the way, it gives us a tantalizing peek into the lives of the people involved with CITIZEN KANE, dropping hints about their personalities. I found myself constantly wanting to know more about the characters than this movie told, but there's enough characterization here for a great story. This is, after all, not a biography of Orson Wells or William Randolph Hearst, but the story of the making of one film.
HBO managed to assemble a stellar cast to inhabit the lives of these characters for this made-for-cable movie, and the money was obviously worth it. Each major character is consistently well acted, and one can't help but be drawn into their stories. John Malkovich and Liev Schreiber's Mankiewicz and Wells play particularly well off each other, defining the moral heart of CITIZEN KANE as they show themselves to be each other's conscience. Having the friendship parallel the creation of the film is a clever dramatic tool, serving up a human subplot while simultaneously moving along the greater narrative.
Absorbing as the characters are, however, it's not a perfect film. Details about the Hearst side of the argument are sketchier, and despite attempts to explore the personal relationship between Hearst and his mistress, we're left asking significant questions about him. Was he really as cold-blooded as portrayed here, or was he just personally wounded by CITIZEN KANE? What happened to his threat to expose Hollywood if the movie was released? Though in decline, he still retained newspapers at the time of the movie's release, so why didn't he carry through with his threat to publish details about Hollywood's private lives? Wouldn't that have sold papers and increased his revenue at a time when he needed the money? RKO 281 builds Hearst up as a heavy in its first hour, and then kind of just forgets about that side of him in the second. In my mind, there's a metamorphosis of his character from confident to defeated that isn't sufficiently explained in the movie.
[DVD notes: For a film about the making of film, this DVD has ironically no additional features. This is an entirely criminal example of neglect, and the film loses mass quantities of brownie points for it. At the very least there should've been a director's commentary. Additionally I think it would've made some great sense to have packaged this as a double DVD, along with the PBS documentary.]