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Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)

written by rick December 27, 2014
Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)

Warren Beatty’s 1981 passion project Reds is such a sprawling monster of a movie that it’s difficult to figure out how to approach it.

It’s a 195-minute epic he devoted years and years to bringing to the screen, about the American journalist John Reed (the only American buried at the Kremlin), the Russian Revolution, leftist sectarian politics in the U.S. labor movement and then later within the fledgling Soviet bureaucracy, with a healthy dollop of cross-continental melodrama.

Do you write a historical treatise, pointing out what the film gets right and wrong? Do you write a polemic agreeing with or denouncing its characters’ stated beliefs, the ways in which they are elevated or subverted by the picture? Do you dig into the New Hollywood moment that produced the film, and talk about Beatty, Nicholson, Keaton, and all the lefty or post-lefty aspects of that cinematic moment?

You can, but I won’t. I’m going to skip all that and look at the movie.

The reality is that contemporary audiences, even ones likely to watch a 195-minute epic about the Russian Revolution and star-crossed American lovers in pursuit of transcendence and connection and solidarity, don’t give a shit about all that. The question is: How does Reds play, nearly 15 years after its release and almost a century removed from the period it depicts?

The answer is – it holds up pretty fucking well.

From the start, Reds feels fresh and vital. One of Beatty’s key stylistic choices (and one of his best) is to frame the retelling of Jack Reed’s (Beatty’s) story with documentary-style talking heads of people who knew him. These old-timers recount their experiences, many of which are very minor, with Reed and his very complicated love Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), in the old neighborhoods. When we launch back into the story, the bemused, conflicted, and admiring tones of these actual people follow us, and frankly make up for what Beatty and Keaton often lack as believable leads. It feels urgent.

The first half of the film concerns Reed’s rise to prominence as a working-class anti-war agitator and professional rabble-rouser, Louise’s attempts to establish herself independently as writer, and her affair with mutual friend and sometimes-comrade Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson, in a role in which he’s so good I can’t believe people don’t bring it up more frequently).

This section of the film, as the first world war impinges and conditions seem to get more serious around the margins, is focused on domestic unhappiness at home, and attempts to calm it down. Reed and Bryant argue publicly and privately for free love, but the first signs of jealousy derail their ambitions, at least for themselves. Nicholson calls them “parlor socialists,” and he’s not wrong. They yell at each other a lot. Her trysts lead him to propose marriage, presumably to keep the leaking ship afloat for a while. She accepts. They get a dog.

The second half of the film opens to Warren Beatty in an apron, like Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, burning a roast. (Yes, really.) The talking heads discuss his rare passion and the ways in which he threaded the needle to bring Bolshevism to the people, but on screen he is lumbering about a kitchen like an idiot, while things burn.

Mere moments later, he’s off to Russia on behalf of one sectarian wing of the American Communist Party, hoping to get the Kremlin’s ok for their splinter group and assume the role of revolutionary vanguard of the U.S. workers.

The film continues and many more things happen, but this contrast gets right to the problem in the film. Beatty wants to expose the personal in the political, and vice versa. He wants to zoom in on the relatable struggles of lovers – fucking up dinner for your girl who just came back, which you really want to go well – and then pull back to show how such small interactions reflect and embody greater social upheavals.

It’s a worthy goal, and Reds is an ambitious film, but it never seemed to come together for me. It seemed like several movies locked in an argument. The pacing is off. Keaton seems to scream at you for an hour. I found myself struggling to remember why people were even in certain scenes. Gene Hackman is wasted (Ha! It’s funny because it’s true), and I got the distinct impression George Plimpton only shows up because someone lost a bet.

But the film’s best moments come right after intermission: Keaton’s Bryant agrees to come to Russia, and she and Beatty’s Reed start collaborating, taking criticism with a smile and a sense of excitement. You get the sense history is happening right in front of them, and all that petty bullshit is behind. Typewriters click in the back of the score, and, for a brief, lovely moment, no one is crying or shouting. In fact, they couldn’t be happier.

Are they just at their best when the world is crumbling down around them? The great cinematographer Vittorio Storano frames them constantly on opposite sides, in windows and doorframes and shadows, unless they are alone. One of the best shots shows Keaton’s face watching Beatty speak at a rally; as the crowd grows more adamant in its support of his position, she fades into the indecipherable crowd. “Politics,” he writes in a letter to her from the Russian front, “does a number on your poetry.”

Is Reds a good movie? I think Keaton is often woefully out of place. Beatty fares a bit better with his aw-shucks rogue routine, and Nicholson has rarely been better. Its politics are questionable but it asks the right questions, and its melodrama worked for this guy. The shots are often gorgeous, and even Beatty isn’t the most inspired director who ever showed up on the scene, you got that Storano to help plug the gaps. It tells a story worth telling, and I was surprised – after bellyaching about the film’s length – that my first impulse when it closed was to want one more scene.

So yeah, I won’t argue too much with myself. For its considerable number of missteps, Reds is a pretty good movie.

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