"Reds" *** (out of ****)
Warren Beatty's labor of love "Reds" (1981) is a very ambitious, grand piece of cinema. It wants to be a historical, epic love story and tell us about an important moment in history.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite succeed because it makes one cardinal mistake. It wants to be a love story first, historical film second.
That move may have been deliberately done on the part of Beatty and co-writer Trevor Griffiths but it was the wrong move. The film is about the life of journalist John Reed, best known in this country for the book "Ten Days that Shook the World" based on the Russian Revolution and his relationship to Louise Bryant.
I would imagine in order to sell the movie to a studio and get financial backing, Beatty had to sell it as "Doctor Zhivago" (1965) of the 1980s. And in doing so Beatty makes the center of attention the love story. Though it is what is in the background, the story of social upheaval, both in America and Russia, and the beginning of America's entry in WW1, which is truly interesting.
This is an old plot device that was used before "Reds" and has continued to be used years later. It is history told through the eyes of lovers. See "Children of Glory" (2006) as a modern day example or "December Heat" (2008). "Children" is a Hungarian movie dealing with the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and "December Heat" is an Estonian movie dealing with their own conflict with communist. The idea is history interferes with the lovers. There are wars, revolutions, political and social injustice in the background making it difficult for the lovers to be together. The world and all of its problems are keeping the couple apart. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. It should have worked better in "Reds".
Beatty doesn't make us care enough about the politics of the story. The viewer doesn't truly get a feeling of the time period. Why is this story important? Why did Warren Beatty feel the need to tell it? This was an important moment in history. This is an interesting story but Beatty doesn't give it the attention and detail it deserves.
In "Reds" Beatty plays John Reed. A left-wing journalist who is sometimes of a socialist-activist. He argues for a world-wide union of workers. With the possibility of war on the horizon he speaks of peace. People of the world should band together and not fight. The war is not about "peace" and "democracy" it is about profits. About making sure the ruling classes keep their money.
Beatty plays Reed as an innocent, gullible man with good intentions who finds himself in dangerous situations.
Diane Keaton plays Louise Bryant, a feminist who also writes but hasn't really found her voice. She is also a left-wing activist, but, doesn't really know what she is fighting for. She takes on everything. Through her relationship with John Reed together they both travel to Russia to see first hand the beginnings of a revolution.
Technically the movie is impressive. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro) is beautiful, capturing the landscape. I like the costume and production designs, the music is fitting and helps re-enforce the emotions of particular scenes but I keep coming back to the story. There isn't enough there.
There is also a terrific cast; Jack Nicholson, playing Eugene O' Neil, Paul Sorvino has a socialist politician, Louis Fraina, Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, Gene Hackman as Pete Van Wherry and Edward Herrmann as Max Eastman.
The movie was nominated for a total of 12 Academy Awards including best picture, best actor (Beatty), best actress (Keaton) and best supporting actor (Nicholson). It went on to win three awards; best director (Beatty), best supporting actress (Stapleton) and best cinematography (Storaro).
"Reds" is a well intended, finely acted, at times emotional story that just doesn't fully explain the implications of its story and help the viewer fully understand the time period.