The central action of Citizen Kane lies in the mystery of Kane’s final word – “Rosebud”. The overarching narrative (the newsreel staff attempting to find an explanation for “rosebud”) binds together the eclectic genius of the film. In essence there are two plots – the story of Charles Foster Kane’s life, and the story of the attempt to explain his last words. The flashback sequences take up most of the actual time and space of the movie, but without the newsreel plot the film would lose a great amount of coherence and structure. The “meta” narrative of the newsreel provides context for the flashback sequences and also allows for a smooth transition between the sequences.
Given the title, it makes sense that the most important, interesting, and meaningful scenes all take place as flashbacks focusing on Kane. In essence, and I think where Orson Welles’s real passion and idea was, the film attempts to condense a man’s life into two hours of short vignettes. However, the audience does not start out with any knowledge or attachment to Kane. Welles uses the mystery of Rosebud drives our attention and engagement with the film until we can make the transition to engaging because of our attachment to Kane. At the end of the movie, the reporters explicitly dismiss the importance of Rosebud. I thought it was hilarious as the woman says “What about Rosebud? Don’t you think that explains anything?”, and immediately Thompson ostensibly dismisses the entire point of the movie – “No, I don’t.”
I think Orson Welles uses these more traditional narrative structures, a mystery and an investigation, to lure the audience into the story he really wants to tell about a man’s life.