Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition
October 23, 2006
Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, M. Emmet Walsh, Jerry Hardin, Max Wright, Gene Hackman, R.G. Armstrong,
The 1970s saw the rise in prominence of the director in Hollywood and this resulted in many movies being pushed through the system that wouldn’t normally have been made. However, by the time of the Heaven’s Gate (1980) debacle, the rule of the director was pretty much over and the producer (and movie star) moved into the spotlight during the 1980s. However, there was one last gasp in 1981 from one of the stars of the ‘70s with Reds, a movie Warren Beatty co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in. It was an ambitious, over three hour epic look at the Russian Revolution through the eyes of American journalist Jack Reed (Beatty) who was also an activist. The Revolution is the backdrop to the love story between Reed and writer/feminist Louise Bryant (Keaton).
While his fellow Americans talk about World War I as a struggle for freedom, Reed believes that the real motivation for winning is profits. Bryant is attracted to his socialist views, moves to New York City and becomes a part of his circle of radicals that includes writer Eugene O’Neill (Nicholson). They are all part of an exciting period in time and a group of people that believed in progressive (for the times) ideas like unions. Bryant and Reed write articles for his leftist publication The Masses while also writing and acting (badly) in plays that attacked capitalism.
Reed dares to speak out against the American involvement in WWI and finds himself being increasingly marginalized as a result. When he hears that there might be a worker’s revolution in Russia, he decides to go where the action is and successfully convinces Bryant to accompany him even though they’ve had a falling out. They find the country in turmoil. The Russian people are suffering heavy losses in the war and this is evident on a train ride where Bryant and Reed see, first hand, its effects: maimed and wounded soldiers strewn about on a station platform. Meanwhile, the people are very unhappy with the way the government is running things with V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky as they key figures of dissent.
At the time, Reds must’ve seemed like a crazy movie as it took the notion of hip New York (fashionable at the time thanks to Woody Allen films) and politicized it. People probably went in expecting a typical Warren Beatty film and what they got was a drama about Communist writers. It’s also amazing that Beatty was able to do so thanks to the collective clout of movie stars like Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson both of whom were still enjoying considerable success at the time. The three leads are excellent with Beatty using his charisma to play a crusading journalist, Keaton in an unglamourous role as a serious-minded writer, and a wonderfully low key Nicholson, the last of this kind of performance he would deliver for many years. Reds explores the complex relationship between Bryant, Reed and O’Neill and its often tumultuous nature when she became romantically involved with both men. The screenplay is extremely literate and full of political ideas but conveys them in an engaging fashion that is never dull to watch despite the over three hour running time. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got a strong cast to speak these lines.
The parallels that Beatty’s film makes between Russia in the 1910s to the current political situation in the United States is eerie. They too are mired in an unpopular war with leaders that most people are dissatisfied with while also showing the devastating effects of war. Beatty does a great job recreating the excitement and energy of the Bolshevik Revolution, how the Russian people instituted real change, and how Reed tried to translate that to workers in the U.S. It may seem like a cinematic contradiction but Reds features an involving and absorbing love story set against political struggle a la Doctor Zhivago (1965).
Reds is one of those rare Hollywood films that is actually about something. It’s interesting that Beatty has decided to release his film on DVD on the eve of another round of elections in the U.S. Is he perhaps hoping that his film about the people affecting change will somehow influence people now? It’s hard not to get caught up in Beatty’s enthusiasm for socialism and his idealistic belief that it can change things.
A DVD release of this film has been a long time coming with the studio waiting for Warren Beatty’s involvement. He had been long resistant to doing DVD extras for his movies but seems to have changed his mind for this title perhaps because it was such a personal project. There are seven featurettes that can be viewed separately or altogether.
“Witness to Reds: The Rising” traces the origins of the film. Beatty was interested in making a film about the development of the American left from 1915 to 1920 and, in particular, John Reed and his incredible, albeit brief life. Beatty had done Heaven Can Wait (1978), a blatantly commercial film, so that he’d have the clout to get Reds made.
“Witness to Reds: Comrades” features Beatty talking about he cast the movie. He speaks highly of Diane Keaton and her acting process – she does not like doing many takes. Nicholson calls her “unpredictable” and says that she would frown upon retrospective documentaries like this one. Beatty convinced Nicholson to play O’Neill by saying that he was the only actor who could take Keaton away from him in a movie.
“Witness to Reds: Testimonials” examines the testimonial segments in the film with people who actually knew the historical figures depicted in the movie. It was an interesting conceit that gave Reds a quasi-documentary feel and provided exposition that Beatty wouldn’t have to dramatize.
“Witness to Reds: The March” examines the pre-production phase. Beatty almost got the chance to shoot in Russia but made a political faux pas and so he had to shoot elsewhere. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro talks about working with Beatty and the look of the film – he wanted to adopt a painterly look.
“Witness to Reds: The Revolution – Part 1” takes a look at the politics of the film. Fellow cast members talk about how Beatty’s personal philosophy is mirrored in the movie. Beatty tried to take a simple approach to filmmaking and clashed with Storaro who constantly kept moving the camera. Over the years, however, they’ve switched opinions.
“Witness to Reds: The Revolution – Part 2” examines Beatty’s fascination with Reed’s internal conflict between arts and politics. He stuck to historical facts and chronology whenever possible. The attention to period detail is also looked at.
Witness to Reds: Propaganda” examines the post-production and legacy of the film. Beatty’s friend, Stanley Kubrick recommended that he edit on video because it would save time. Stephen Sondheim talks about his approach to the score and what Beatty wanted. The actor says that the studio was completely supportive of Reds but that he did not do any interviews for it at the time because he felt that he would just get in the way. Reds ended up being nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won three including Best Director for Beatty.