A few weeks ago, I scribbled for The American Spectator the of the new film Citizen Trump. (Click for trailer here and Vimeo link here.) It was an exclusive given to yours truly and The American Spectator by filmmaker Robert Orlando. Orlando, the quintessential nice guy, gently objected to several of my observations. He charitably offered us a second exclusive — in the form of a follow-up Q&A, in the hopes of answering some of the points I made in that review. Given the unbounded graciousness of this venerable website, we happily obliged. That Q&A follows herewith, based on the main items in my review to which Orlando wanted to respond.
Kengor: As I noted in my review, Robert, this is the parallel that you play out, a summary of which will here help readers who missed the initial review: In 1941, the story of a powerful, larger-than-life, media-driven business tycoon would emerge on the silver screen in a groundbreaking film. The film was a morality tale of the mogul’s bid for high office. The story was Citizen Kane, and the real-life portrait captured in the film was that of William Randolph Hearst. Seventy-five years later, another business tycoon would emerge to also run for president, only this time, unlike Hearst/Kane, he would win the presidency. That man’s name, of course, is Donald Trump.
Beyond that summary, I said that “the film is remarkable — truly in the literal sense. I think it will evoke a strong dislike from those who either hate Trump or love Trump.”
That’s a summary. What’s your response?
Orlando: My experience so far, with those who have watched the film, is not like or dislike, but intrigue with the Kane angle to understand Trump and the media. The timing makes it more political, but it’s really just a film about the rise of an enigmatic man during some incredibly challenging times! One reviewer (not a fan) told me that given the tight race, CITIZEN TRUMP IS A FILM THAT CAN DECIDE THE ELECTION. I said, great, let the audience decide.
Kengor: That’s quite remarkable. But I guess if your analogy is correct, then the film (or parallel) could have that kind of power.
What was similar and what was different in the two characters? My take is that you see both “Citizen Trump” and “Citizen Kane” as men who sought enormous power, though with motives that were questioned, perhaps not entirely clear.
Orlando: The fun part was when the parallels ran out and a new life of unchartered waters began with Trump. For instance, Kane failed at his attempt to be governor, Trump became president, and is about to run again. Is there a Rosebud moment coming or not? This is what makes it dramatic, but you have to see it to judge for yourself!
Kengor: Fair enough. I also said in the review that, in your eyes, the obsession with Donald Trump’s every syllable also says something about the character of the so-called “establishment.” It’s that very same establishment — the media, the Beltway, the “Swamp,” the “Deep State” — that Trump has taken on with fist-in-the-air swagger, not unlike Kane’s adversaries. Your response?
Orlando: Yes, Trump’s victory over the media was not something he conjured up (in his “maniac” personality), but something that took amazing skill and ambition. I state in the film that Trump like no other president absorbed a sustained attack that from every quarter of power did not destroy him, including the accusation that he was sleeping with his daughter.
Kengor: The sustained attack has been unprecedented, no question. Backing up a bit, to 2016, when the attacks first began, how could one man, with no political resume, overcome a field of 16 highly credentialed Republicans also vying for the job? Once he won the GOP primary, how could he persevere when being out-funded by the Democratic Party establishment, or when out-strategized by one of the most corrupt political machines in the history of the presidency, the Clintons? Once in the Oval Office, could he survive an unprecedented blitzkrieg of media attacks still going on today?
Orlando: Because he is incredibly well skilled in reading audiences, self promotion, and how to position himself as the hero (and his opponents as villains). It’s called the art of storytelling, something he had practiced all his life — Madison Ave. 101. That’s not a slam, that’s just Trump playing the stage he’s on. The subtitle of the film is “A One Man Show,” because although Trump had The Apprentice to launch his national TV character, Obama had all of Hollywood and mainstream media meeting with him at the White House, so he had professionals at the top level. Trump was rejected by Hollywood and did it almost single-handedly.
Kengor: No doubt it was and remains an impressive feat.
I opined in my review that if one is a liberal looking at your film in the hopes of seeing a Michael Moore–style documentary aimed at the Left, forget it, and if you’re a conservative looking for something that Dinesh D’Souza would create, you’re likewise out of luck. I said that for Trump-loathing liberals, you taking Donald Trump seriously and exploring him honestly will itself be judged intolerable and unacceptable. For liberals or for Never Trumpers looking for a film portraying Trump as an unfit maniac, this film isn’t that either. Do you agree with that assessment?
Orlando: You are underestimating both audiences as if there is no common humanity in both that would love a good film, a film that might both challenge and support your views. One reviewer called it “disruptive.” It’s film as a mirror to our world, not to win a vote. In this case the mirror is to power and media, and our lens in that of Kane because it gives unique insight.
Kengor: Again, fair enough. Though I’m sure that not many people will be able to view this film outside the heat of heated politics. But we’ll see. It truly is a filmmaker’s film. Speaking of which, you have credentials as a filmmaker very comfortable with traditional (conservative) subject matters like General George S. Patton, , and Reagan and John Paul II, (a film in which I was heavily involved). Both of those films are terrific, and conservatives and liberals alike would enjoy them. You have a rightly earned reputation for fairness.
Orlando: Those films were created the same way as Citizen Trump, with the best effort to portray the figures, warts and all, not as myths, but to their own determined destiny. The measure is the path they set for themselves. Trump set his goal: to be big, successful, and on the greatest stage in history, and he did it! That’s not politics, that’s a fact! How he did it is another story.
Kengor: Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment, because I know you wanted to remark on this. The film starts with the voice and face of the filmmaker and writer — that is, you — an Orson Welles aficionado and expert, locked down by corona in 2020 and thinking you had the virus yourself, and then you sit back and re-watch anew your favorite film, Citizen Kane, “but this time through a new set of eyes — the eyes of Donald Trump.” And here, Donald Trump, in your view, began to morph into the Citizen Kane role. Tell us about that. I think the personal journey is a compelling part of the narrative arc of this film.
Orlando: This was my own personal journey coming together with COVID and in the world of Citizen Kane. COVID had almost taken my mother’s life, and blew through my area, and I thought it had me. During that time Trump and the media went at it 24/7, and at a time of great vulnerability. The Showman (i.e., Trump) that many had respected for his win was handling precious human cargo in the the Covid crisis. Neither side slowed their attack.
Kengor: No, they didn’t. I was critical of the spot in the film in which you said that “America didn’t need a reality TV star; it needed a moral leader.” This was a role (you said) that Trump had never had. Via COVID-19, the film avers, “Trump had met his match.” Here was an enemy he couldn’t defeat. Trump’s success had been his ability to play the “trickster.” Trump’s popularity sank, notes the film. “Though the virus was not his fault.” Trump thus found a new enemy to pivot against, though this one was real: China. “The China virus.” Tell us about that take.
Orlando: To be clear, Trump did not have a reputation as a moral leader like FDR or Ronald Reagan, so when he needed to be trusted, for his words and his care for others, he had little to no equity. He did not create the COVID-19 problem, but his style of handling it was problematic. Deep empathy was needed.
Kengor: Speaking of deep empathy, in my view, the major flaw of the film comes in its final five minutes, which needs to wrap up the theme powerfully, putting a big, tidy bow on the message. Instead, the concluding words from you seem muddled and heavy on moralizing. I personally was not really sure of your message, or how Trump’s mysterious tweet “covfefe” equates to a Charles Foster Kane “Rosebud” moment, which the film suggests. Like the close of Citizen Kane, the close of Citizen Trump, in my view, needs to end with viewers understanding his Rosebud.
Orlando: Some said Welles was accused of having an unclear ending. Others said his ending was too easy or Freudian and was a cop-out to finish the plot. The simple reason is that complex lives don’t end simply. Plays and films are made because life is more difficult than the daily news. Kane was Welles’ first and best film, and Touch of Evil was arguably his last, which ends with the final words, spoken by Marlene Dietrich, “What does it matter what you say about a man.” Character complexity was the forte of Welles.
Kengor: One final criticism. As the credits begin to roll, there is a strange Oliver Stone-ish “White Christmas” ending, as Bing Crosby’s song hums viewers to an odd close. What’s up with that?
Orlando: I think trying to explain that transition would be to overanalyze the moment. It was just an editing instinct. Kane’s globe has snow and the Christmas icons, but is dark, and White Christmas associates with the light. A better time, when we were not so cynical, and film did not need a political reason to be valuable.
Kengor: Okay, that’s interesting, and it prompts a final, final thought. Big picture: why this film, why now, and why you?
Orlando: Because I’m going to make the film tremendously huge. Because it’s perfect timing, a big beautiful film. And well … because I am the only one who could have done this.
Kengor: Spoken in a tremendously huge and big and beautiful way that Donald Trump would appreciate. Thanks, Robert Orlando. Good luck.
Orlando: Thank you.