There are many films that claim to be epics but few truly deserve this accolade. One that does is without a doubt Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, ‘Reds’. This film has resulted in controversy due to its theme of an American communist but no matter what your political or ideological views are ‘Reds’ remains twenty five years later as a groundbreaking work of cinema. This was a labor of love for Beatty who not only stared in it but directed, researched and wrote the screenplay (the later along with Trevor Griffiths). ‘Reds’ pushed the limits of film processing to create an incredible and visually stunning work. The film also received twelve Academy Award nominations including the extremely rare feat of nominations in all four major acting categories. It only took four of those nominations but it remains one of the most referred to works today.
American journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty) was best known for his coverage of the Russian Revolution in his seminal work, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’. He did more than just write about the revolution he became a leading activist in the American and Russian communist movements. The film begins in 1915.A this time Reed is a twenty-eight year-old and freshly graduated from Harvard. While writing for the radical paper, ‘The Masses’ Reed meets a fellow revolutionary and writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) in Portland, Oregon. She convinces Reed to accompany her to New York City. Back in Greenwich Village Bryant having left her dentist husband she now wants to pursue her writing. While there Reed is introduced to the intellectual upper crust consisting of such notable names as Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann). These were the main anarchists, revolutionaries and radicals of their time and Reed felt right at home in their company. He starts what will become a long held affair with Bryant drawn to her passion for the cause. His constant traveling to cover and protest American involvement in World War I is a constant drain on Bryant who feels the relationship is drifting apart. The couple tries to keep their relationship together even moving to Provincetown to participate in the local artsy scene. Bryant, feeling like she is always in the shadow of Reed, begins an affair with Eugene O’Neil. This does work in getting Reed somewhat jealous and he finally marries Bryant. Wanting a fresh start the couple relocates to Croton-on-Hudson in upstate New York. Her need to express her self personally results in Louise moving to France to cover the Western Front of the war. He follows her and the pair are caught up in what would become the story of their lifetime and a means to work together, the Russian Revolution. Working from Petrograd Reed and Louise find themselves drawn to the plight of the working class. They quickly move from observers to participants becoming more and more involved in the movement. Upon their return to the States Reed publishes Ten Days that Shook the World and rapidly moves on to becoming a member of the American Socialist Party. The relationship is once again strained as Reed becomes a leader in the movement. He returns to Russia to obtain recognition from the Communist Labor Party, leaving his wife behind. There he meets Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), a high ranking Bolshevik who declines to recognize the American movement. He does, however, offer a position to Reed in the propaganda office. This is not what Reed expected and he attempts to flee the country. Louise has a change in heart and journeys to Europe to reunite with her husband. They finally do meet up just before Reed dies in a Moscow hospital.
Although the film only chronicles the last few years of Reed’s life it does capture what to all reports are the essence of the man. Even though the time span represented is brief the movie clocks in well over three hours making it a difficult viewing for many. Fortunately, now that it is finally on DVD you can plan an intermission. The material covered is densely packed. A lot happened around Reed during those final years of his brief life. Even with Beatty’s obvious admiration for Reed this is not a piece that overly glorifies him. To his credit Beatty makes an attempt to show Reed as a human being who while idealistic was also flawed. This same description also holds true for the film. For many Americans that lived through the fifties communism is a pejorative, not an ideal that a person born in this country would promote. Reed also crossed a line that many would contend no journalist should cross; he became an active participant in his subject matter. What may be happening here is Beatty saw in Reed a kindred soul, a person of convictions who has a passion for what he considers right. This is also a love story of grand perspective. The relationship between Reed and Louise is strained by his revolutionary ways but ultimately wins out in the end.
There is no argument that this is an incredible cast but some actors are a bit miscast. While Beatty wanted both he and his then lady love Keaton in the leads they are less then convincing as young lovers. It is easier to age a younger actor than make an older actor look young and the attempts here can take you right out of the moment. Still, considering the intensity of the material you really need seasoned actors like Beatty and Keaton. Beatty plays Reed as an idealistic man who sees injustice perpetrated against the working man and he cannot sit still and just watch. He is drawn into the fight because he cannot bear to do otherwise. Keaton gives an excellent performance as Louise. She portrays her as a woman with ideals who has entrance to the great minds of her time. While she is able to sit in on such heady discussions she remains a girl brought up far from the intellectual center of New York in the American North West. Despite their off screen relationship at the time the chemistry between Beatty and Keaton seems to lack something. Many of the more tender love scenes drag on too long. Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast as playwright Eugene O’Neil. His flamboyant personality pops off the screen and livens up the film considerably.
What makes this film is the cinematography. This was the first film to employ the ENR variable silver retention development process which permitted the cinematographer and director to push the colors of the scenes. The literally paint a picture with each frame. The way lighting is used is nothing short of inspired. The pacing of the film is uneven. The first two acts are much tighter than the third. Towards the end of the film it appears that scenes are too loose.
This film is finally released on DVD. It has been long sought in this format by fans and now on the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release it is here. Since Beatty has been very vocal about his refusal to re-edit the film for television it has previously only appeared ever so often on the premium cable movie networks. The technical presentation of this film is excellent. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is perfectly mastered. The color palette is the best I have seen in a long time. The colors intended by the film makers are presented true to their vision. The Dolby 5.1 audio will fill your room. The front speakers provide a better than average stereo separation while the rear speakers give the audience a natural and well balanced ambience. The sub woofers are used sparingly but with dramatic effect. The extras consist of Beatty’s ‘Witnesses’ interviews. Presented in several parts each concerned with a different aspect of Reed’s life, they include footage of some of the luminaries of the twentieth century. These interviews give a rare look at such a diverse group containing everyone from George Jessel to Norman Mailer. While this is far from a perfect film it is an important one in the annals of film history. There are those that hate it and others who praise every frame. Now you can get the DVD and judge for yourself.