Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’ Is an Enduring Artistic Triumph

Warren Beatty’s passion for his epic film, Reds, is apparent. Rarely, if ever, does such an important film come along for a performer like this.

Warren Beatty
4 December 1981

They just don’t make epics like Reds anymore. When a feeble attempt is made at re-capturing that sort of cinematic magic these days, it usually comes up short. Thankfully, firebrand actor-director-producer-writer Warren Beatty’s 1981 film of Communist journalist John Reed’s life and commitment to his cause is intellectually alluring as well as meticulously crafted. It’s also very, very long, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the last great Hollywood-crafted epics of our time.

Despite the lofty, politically-hot material and the gargantuan running time, Beatty’s personal best film stands among the most spectacular films of the ’80s and has retained its dignity with age. Reds tackles such hot-button topics as the anti-war movement, patriotism, and freedom of speech and thought with such a prescient assuredness that it could almost be mistaken for a film made for a contemporary audience.

“Epic” is the keyword here: Reds clocks in at a mammoth three-plus hours and was shot in about 30 different locations worldwide (from Reykjavik to Seattle, from Taos to Helsinki, Beatty and company were certified globe-trotters). To commemorate the 25th anniversary of auteur Beatty’s sweeping political romance, the elusive filmmaker has issued a special edition of the film to the DVD format for the first time.

To have the film available in a format for modern technology is definitely a nice treat: prior to its release this month, the only way to view Reds was the sub-par VHS edition, which was issued back in the early ’80s when VCRs were all the rage. The sound and look of the picture were still impressive, despite the scratchiness of the tape, but the disc transfer reveals Reds’ full splendor. The gloriously crisp shots of wintry Russia (which won cinematographer Vittorio Storaro the Oscar), the intricate period costumes, and the violent noise of a country on the verge of revolution hold up beautifully on this transfer to the newer medium. One of the not-so-great things about this edition is that it is split over two discs; sort of a hassle, but a minor one.

Present-day, reclusive Beatty appears with a disclaimer in the bevy of extras included on disc two: “I’ve never done one of these interviews for a DVD and I basically disapprove of it”. There is no director or actor commentary track; instead there are six anecdotal documentaries about the film’s major facets. Aside from Beatty, co-star Jack Nicholson also contributes to the making-of documentaries, but sadly Beatty’s former lover Diane Keaton is noticeably absent from the festivities (she doesn’t do “extras”, apparently, for any of her films, either).

Reds remains a relevant, enduring artistic triumph as a film: Beatty (playing journalist / activist John Reed, the only American to be entombed in the Kremlin in Moscow) captures the intimacy of the film’s central love story with passion and verve, and tackles the immense scope with a strong conviction that he had yet to reveal before making the film. Beatty comes across as both rebellious and revolutionary in each facet of his involvement, cementing his legendary reputation as a dedicated political activist and artist (as well as injecting some of his personal dry-as-hell humor into the sometimes too-somber proceedings).

Following a group of radical writers, artists, revolutionaries (and other forward thinkers of like mind) as they set out to make reform in the streets: Louise Bryant (a radiant Keaton, shedding her usual manners and tics in a way she hasn’t since), Eugene O’Neill (Nicholson, unrecognizably low-key), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, who curiously won the Oscar for her meager five minute appearance), Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino), Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann) are among the sincere socialist luminaries that appear. Beatty says he got his true dream ensemble, which is apparent as each performer turns in career-best work (Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson, and Stapleton made history as the last group of actors to be nominated in the four main acting categories at the Academy Awards: Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress). Indeed, Reds features some legendary, larger-than-life performers succeeding outside of their respective acting comfort zones, such Keaton and Nicholson, who are known as much for their larger-than-life off-screen personas as they are for their acting. Each turn in some of the most remarkably subtle disappearing acts of their respective careers: both dissolve into the period and the characters.

Aside from the stellar Hollywood cast assembled by Beatty, there is also an equally important ensemble of real-life characters that lends Reds it’s true gravity: the director managed to put together a series of testimonials for the film, interspersed with the dramatizations, that were given by people who traveled in the same social circles as these socialist butterflies, to contrast the historical epic with the startlingly bare-bones, in-your-face style of the close-up monologues. Beatty brilliantly fished out details from the participants (beginning his quest for information more than a decade before the film was to be made) to make transitions throughout the dramatic portion of the film, with the real-life witnesses to the story remaining nameless. Reds daring comes from these documentary-like scenes: watching the unglamorous, deeply lined faces recount things like the first World War or the sexual politics of the time lends a priceless first-hand authenticity to the dramatic portions of the film.

Beatty talks at length in the extras about how he had to make films like Heaven Can Wait before making his life-long dream happen: the studios wanted to ensure that he was both bankable and someone the critics would appreciate. His passion for Reds is apparent and rarely, if ever, does such an important film come along for a performer like this. John Reed’s life is perfectly suited to the talents of Beatty, it is clear that a film like Reds comes along only once in a lifetime and Beatty, ever astute, made the most of his involvement in it. It seems as though filmmakers like Beatty are a dying breed, however: Reds remains a true triumph of artistry and vision (and one of the last great films to combine romance, real-life and politics as it does), but the biggest let down for fans of the big Hollywood-style “epic” is that they may get slightly depressed after realizing that there won’t ever be another film like this made in our time, no matter how hard upstart directors might try. We can all cling to the hope that Beatty decides to come out of his self-imposed domestic exile and show everyone how to do it right, again.

RATING 9 / 10
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