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Reds - 40th Anniversery Edition
Reds (1981), the epic historical drama about journalist and political radical John Reed, is by a country mile the best film Warren Beatty ever made as director-producer-star and co-writer. All of his movies are intriguing yet all are also flawed in various ways; here, what would normally be deficiencies actually work to the picture's advantage, notably the casting of Beatty as Reed and Diane Keaton as feminist journalist Louise Bryant.
There's nothing quite like it. It's a bona fide thinking man's epic, superior to David Lean's not-dissimilar Doctor Zhivago (1965) even though you'll need PhDs in post-Czar Russian politics and early 20th century American radicalism to completely follow the complexities of what unfolds onscreen. It's a rare great movie in which its greatness is the sum of its parts.
Ironies abound. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, here's a movie celebrating the idealism of the Russian Revolution copyrighted by Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited. ("John Reed would have loved that," Ebert wrote.) It was released just as Ronald Reagan and America's uber-capitalist "Me Generation" took over, when greed was not only no longer a dirty word, it was openly celebrated by the country's upwardly-mobile. Reds sure seems far more relevant in 2022 that it must have in 1981.
The heart of Reds is the relationship between Reed (Beatty) and feminist journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). She abandons her husband in conservative Portland, Oregon to join Reed in Greenwich Village, New York, where Reed's friends -- anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), writer Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann) and others -- are initially condescending or dismissive toward her. Self-pitying, cynical alcoholic playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) is at the opposite extreme, bluntly expressing the realities of big political struggles and intimate personal relationships. Reed's singlemindedness and frequent long absences drive Louise mad, prompting her, reluctantly, to have an affair with O'Neill.
Reed becomes involved with the Communist Labor Party of America, eventually sneaking into post-Czar Russia to cover the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. Reed's fame there and notoriety in America, especially following the publication of his best-known work, Ten Days That Shook the World, result in Reed being used as a propaganda tool by Gregory Zinoviev (novelist Jerzy Kosiński, very effective), while in the U.S., Reed's hopes for a similar revolution among its working class are quickly dashed by infighting among the various progressive activists.
Running three hours and fifteen minutes, Reds is broken into two acts, roadshow movie style, by an intermission. The climax of Act One is one of the greatest lead-ups to an intermission break ever (2001: A Space Odyssey still has the best one): With his uniquely American perspective, Reed is asked to say a few words to the throngs of agitated Russian revolutionaries. His stirring speech (with a few Russian phrases thrown in) elicit wild cheers, and Reed becomes an instant hero. Watching in the crowd, Louise says nothing and her expressions are barely perceptible, but one can read in her eyes a combination of admiration and foreboding, as Reed crosses over from journalist to full-fledged activist. This is followed by an incredible montage, edited by the great cutter Dede Allen (also the film's co-producer), the Revolution set to a stirring arrangement of The Internationale.
That intermission break also comes precisely at the moment in Reds where the its other key theme crystalizes: a shared dream for a better world, one in which industrialists and nobility no longer are calling the shots for everyone else, where women have the same rights as men, where child labor doesn't exist, and no one is forced to a life of abject poverty. The unraveling of these dreams is all but inevitable but, for a brief moment, such a world seemed within grasp.
Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, playing variations of their familiar screen personae, somehow miraculously fit into all this. Beatty's Reed is single-minded, driven, selfish, charming, intelligent, a little bit stupid and clueless at times, and incredibly naïve and foolish in turn, not at all the usual hero of an historical epic. Amid intense political conversations among his intellectual friends there are also scenes of Reed in his modest Russian apartment, a running gag where Reed keeps bumping his head into a small glass chandelier. Keaton, in a variation of her high-strung, la-dee-dah aspiring intellectual, is also a perfect fit. Louise is talented but unformed at the beginning. She finds Reed attractive but equally exasperating. She sees all his many flaws but loves him for his passion, even when that passion has him disappearing for months on end, and he barely acknowledging her when he returns home before dashing off on another adventure.
The picture captures past events that must have seemed like ancient history in 1981 but which resonate a lot more now. Reed and his liberal friends, for instance, compromise in an early scene by throwing their support for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, on the basis of his campaign promise not to enter the war raging across Europe, a promise he promptly breaks soon after being reelected. The various communist and socialist organizations all basically want the same things but can't get along with one another, some preferring incrementalism to revolution. Inevitably, it all comes crashing down through endless compromises with precious few meaningful gains.
The film's most celebrated device is its use of "Witnesses," real-life anarchists, writers, labor leaders, and associates of Reed and Bryant. Mostly in their eighties and nineties, they offer eyewitness testimony to events now more than a hundred years ago. Their poignant statements, scattered throughout, nevertheless connect Reds to the present-day, a reminder that all that tumultuous activity really happened, and was not so long ago.
Video & Audio
Paramount's new Blu-ray of Reds, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, is a stunner, a far better than the old HD DVD that I had back during the format wars. Though much of the film takes place indoors, there are truly epic moments throughout and which really come to life on projection systems and big screens, scenes as sweeping as anything by Lean. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is likewise outstanding, full of directionality and oomph when required. A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is also offered, along with optional English subtitles. A digital copy accompanies this Region "A" disc.
None of the supplements, basically a trailer and one long "making-of" divided into seven segments and in standard-def, are repurposed from earlier home video releases.
A must-see that has never looked or sounded better, Reds is a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.