I remember when Reds was in theatrical release back in 1981. It was getting a lot of buzz, but not all of it was good. Before I had seen the film, I overheard someone complaining that this "goddamned piece of Communist propaganda" was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. (It would go on to win three including best director for co-writer/producer/director/star Warren Beatty.) The thing that struck me was the amount of venom this man had for the film. After all, it was just a movie; mere shadows dancing on a screen. This was the first time that I really thought about the power and influence that film had, and it was partially responsible for my current love of the media. (Of course I was even more astounded when I saw the movie on a movie channel a year or so later and saw that it wasn't a pro-communist movie.) Now this powerful, emotion-inspiring movie has been released as a Blu-ray disc. The epic film looks outstanding in high definition and is sure to find its way into many BD libraries.
This historical drama is the story of Jack Reed (Warren Beatty). He was a left wing reporter and eventual Marxist working in America in the 1910's. He covered the war in Mexico as well as factory strikes, labor unrest, and other social issues and was staunchly against the US entering WWI. As the film opens he's visiting his home town of Portland Oregon and meets Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). The wife of a local dentist, Louise is a free spirit; a writer who feels trapped in the then provincial town of Portland. Her meeting with Jack inspires her to leave her husband, move to Greenwich Village with Jack, and become a professional writer. There the pair hob-nob with a group of bohemians and intellectuals including Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann).
After seeing first hand the unsafe and poor working conditions that that people toiling in factories had to endure, along with their long hours and poverty inducing wages, Jack (and Louise) embrace the radical politics of the time, free love, Marxism, and anarchy. He travels all over the country raising money for Communist magazines and covering the political events of the day, which causes strain between him and Louise. She wants him to stay home, but at the same time she hates that she's so possessive.
After a particularly bad fight she leaves for Europe to cover the war. When the Russian revolution starts and Tzar of Russian is killed along with his family, Jack feels that this may be the most news story ever, and hurries to the country picking up Louise on the way. There they experience the rise of the Bolsheviks first hand and when they return to the US, Jack writes a book about the revolution that will become his masterpiece: Ten Days That Shook the World.
After the publication of his book, Reed becomes even more active in Communist politics in the US. He helps to start the Communist Labor Party and is sent back to Russia by that organization in the hopes that the government there will officially recognize the party. This was illegal at the time, and Jack had to sneak into the country, and once there becomes trapped.
This is an epic movie, and not just because of its three hour length. The film is subtle yet bold, intimate but grand, and very engrossing. Reed was an interesting character, a lowly journalist interested in the very fringes of the US political system who ends up being the only American to be buried in the Kremlin.
Because the film deals with politics, it could have easily gotten bogged down in details and been a bore. That doesn't happen, though the film does drag a bit in parts, because Warren Beatty wisely places the focus on Jack and Louise's love. This is a love story played out in front of the Russian Revolution, sort of an American version of Doctor Zhivago.
Another excellent choice that Beatty made was to tie the story together with testimonials from people who actually knew Jack Reed and Louise Bryant. The movie starts with a series of very old people recalling memories from half a century ago, and this narrative device was a stroke of genius. It prevents the characters from having to recite awkward and unrealistic dialog to set the time, place and important events that were occurring. It also serves to make the events in the movie real. There is a connection between the film and the real world, and that make the movie relevant.
Warren Beatty certainly deserved his Best Director Oscar for this film. His touch is gentle and he's willing to let the actors play their parts subtly. Some of the best moments of the film don't have any dialog. When Louise is looking for Jack when the train arrives in Moscow near the end is a good example of this. There is tension and drama, but no swelling music or overdone hysteria. Keaton simply looks worried, and that's enough to make the audience feel for her. She proves with this role that she can play dramatic parts as well as comedy.
The acting is excellent across the board. Not only are Beatty and Keaton very good, but the supporting actors all do a wonderful job. Jack Nicholson steals every scene he's in playing Eugene O'Neill, and Maureen Stapleton is fantastic as the anarchist Emma Goldman. Being an actor himself Beatty knew how to get excellent performances out of his cast.
The only real qualm I have with the movie is the casting of the leads. Warren Beatty and his (at the time) real life lover Diane Keaton did a good job, but they were just a bit too old to play the young lovers. They always seemed like they were in their early-to-mid 30's, and partially because of that it was hard to tell the passage of time. They also didn't have much chemistry together on screen, which is a bit surprising.
I did have a couple of problems with the script too. I never really understood what Jack Reed and Eugene O'Neill saw in Louise. As she's depicted in the movie she has few redeeming qualities. She's a poor writer who can't finish anything she starts, is very sensitive to criticism, and very hypocritical when it comes to sex. (She sleeps with someone else but leaves Jack when he tells her that he's done the same thing.) A wilting flower that can't kick people out of her own apartment, she came across as rather shrill at times. Luckily it is easy to believe that Jack did love her, for whatever reasons.
This film runs 195 minutes, which is 3 ¼ hours for those of you who don't want to do the math, and is split over two 25 GB Blu-ray discs. I was really disappointed to see that when I opened the case since the entire film and extras could have fit on a dual layer disc. Having to get up and change the disc half way through the movie isn't a hardship, but it's something that viewers shouldn't have to do. I think Paramount would have done better to push back the release a bit in order to put it on a single BD.
I was very interested to see how a 25 year old film would look on Blu-ray. Would the higher definition just magnify the flaws, or would it make the movie look even more impressive? With Reds, it's more of the later than the former. The 1080p 1.85:1 image looked very good, especially for a film of this age. The movie was filmed with a new (at the time) ENR variable silver retention development process that allowed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to practically paint each frame with soft but deep colors. This disc reproduces those lovely hues beautifully and the colors are very striking. The detail is also outstanding, though there are few scenes that really pop off of the screen. Contrast is also fine throughout the production. One thing that I was very happy to see was the care and attention given to the print used for the transfer. It looks impeccable, without any noticeable spots, scratches, dirt, or other imperfections. The blacks were constant throughout and fairly deep though they could have been just a hair darker.
There were a couple of things that prevents this from being a perfect
transfer. There is grain in several scenes, in the opening logo it
is especially noticeable, but it is rarely excessive. I was surprised
to see some telecine wobble in the opening credits. The white titles
on a black background shake from side to side ever so slightly as they
are presented but this flaw isn't noticeable in the rest of the film.
This disc offers the original two channel mono soundtrack as well as a newly created 5.1 mix. I have to admit that the 5.1 mix didn't impress me too much. Though the whole soundstage was used most of the action was still centered on the screen. This mix also felt a little forced as if the engineer was looking for an excuse to throw some sound to the rears, and the effects weren't as discreet as they would have been on a more contemporary film. The dynamic range was also very limited with both ends of the audio spectrum cut off, and this made the movie sound a little flat. Having said that, I honestly think the producers of this disc did the best they could with the material that they had. The audio is very clean, without dropouts or hiss, and the dialog is easy to discern. There are also mono dubs in French and Spanish as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
There is only a single bonus item, aside from a trailer, an eight-part documentary on the making of the film. As Warren Beatty states at the beginning of this hour+ featurette, he doesn't like commentaries and DVD extras and he hasn't participated in them in the past. This film is close to his heart, he's famously not allowed it to be edited for television, and I think it was only that reason that he agreed to participate. This look back at the film features interviews with Beatty himself as well as cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, actor Jack Nicholson, Paramount CEO Barry Diller, and many other cast and crew members. Diane Keaton is conspicuous in her absence and it's too bad that she couldn't or wouldn't participate. This is a funny, entertaining and enlightening examination of the film. Most of the production is examined from Warren Beatty discussing how he obtained the funding for the film, to the disagreements the he and Storaro had about camera movement, and the reaction it received. After watching so many fluff extras on so many other DVDs I was very pleased to see a featurette that was meaty and had a lot of substance.
With beautiful cinematography, excellent acting, subtle direction and an engrossing script, this is a movie that truly deserves all of the accolades that have been heaped upon it. That alone would make this a movie worth owning, but the Blu-ray disc presents this epic film with gorgeous colors and a very detailed image. A great film and a great looking disc, this one is Highly Recommended.