‘American: An Odyssey to 1947’ Review: The Story of Three Lives, Though One Dominates

This documentary intertwines the stories of Orson Welles, Isaac Woodard (a WW II veteran blinded in a police attack) and Howard Kakita (a child survivor of Hiroshima). It's ambitious, but Welles overwhelms the projects.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it comes to ranking the greatest movies to ever grace this planet, I’m the dull originalist. 

That is not to say my respect for Chantel Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which topped the most recent Sight & Sound critics’ list, is as not as deep as that film’s takes are long; and like most of us, the gnawing obsessiveness of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which took the pole position in the previous survey and now sits at number two, clings to me like a summer cold. (For what it’s worth, neither is my top choice among the dazzling output of those two directors.) 

AMERICAN: AN ODYSSEY TO 1947 ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Danny Wu
Running time: 102 mins.

Yet I continue to prefer the movie that has pretty well held the top perch for a majority of the days, months, and decades since its fraught May 1, 1941 release at New York’s RKO Palace: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. 

Aside from its artistic mastery and emotional heft, Kane is the film that more than any other has most evolved in its meaning and mystery in the nearly 45 years since I first saw it projected on wall in my living room from reels that had been borrowed from our local library; somehow, it is a piece of art that has transformed alongside me while also remaining as hard and unmalleable as a gemstone.

The shadow of Kane, and the aftermath of its controversial and ultimately only modestly successful opening (while immediately praised by critics, it would not achieve its place in the canon until it started showing up on television in the mid-50s), looms large over Danny Wu’s American: An Odyssey to 1947, a new documentary opening at New York’s Cinema Village on Sep. 8 and available for streaming four days later.

Like Kane, Wu’s film is one of uncommon ambition. While detailing Welles’ story from birth to his self-imposed European exile in 1948, Wu—a Canadian filmmaker whose documentary feature Square One: Michael Jackson was released on Amazon in 2019—isn’t content to stop there. His film also tells the story of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, the World War II veteran whose racist attack at the hands of South Carolina police was one of the seeds of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, and Howard Kakita, who as a child survived the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima despite being near the explosion’s epicenter. 

Howard Kakita, a child survivor of the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. Courtesy of Maple Road Pictures

Welles’ journey is the main focus—the film relies on commentary from a murderers’ row of Welles scholars including Richard France, James Naremore, and Harlan Lebo—with the two other men’s stories serving as context for his work in theater, radio and film. Both Welles’ theater career and his political outlook was shaped by FDR, who developed the atomic bomb program; he also became passionate advocate for racial equality following his triumphant 1936 staging of MacBeth with all Black actors, and even advocated for Sergeant Woodard on his radio program after learning about his case from the NAACP.  

Is there something a little off-putting about using the pain and destruction of Brown and Black bodies to appraise and elevate the brilliance and compassion of a famous White guy? Yes, there is. For Wu’s unusual and enterprising structure to work, there needed to be equal time given to all three, otherwise it is a house of cards constructed with different sized cards.

The film relies on copious talking heads to go along with historical photos. (The best element may be audio of Welles’ final radio broadcasts before he was pushed off the air for political reasons.) The use of VFX and 3D photo illustrations are meant to liven up the proceedings through animation but mainly serve to distract rather than enrich or inform. These sequences are a half-hearted attempt to create a sense that this story should be told as a film, when in truth it could have very well been a book or essay.  

But what the film does effectively is revitalize Welles’ work by viewing it through the lens of media consolidation, government repression of art and leftist thinkers, and social justice. The guy might have been America’s greatest theatrical impresario, but he was also an avowed anti-Fascist whose passion for equity and liberty imbued all of his work, including Kane. 

It is one of the many qualities that makes Citizen Kane forever vital, prickly, incendiary, and yes, the greatest movie ever made— even if saying so aloud makes you seem desperately out of fashion and like a cinephile of another time. 

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘American: An Odyssey to 1947’ Review: The Story of Three Lives, Though One Dominates