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Beatty's brilliant biopic of John Reed on DVD at last...
on 12 February 2007
Reds is the brilliant biopic of journalist/radical John Reed that Warren Beatty directed in 1981. This was a labour of love for Beatty, who had built up power in Hollywood to make this suitably epic film on such films as Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait.
The film is very long, which could put off many- though it shouldn't as the material is of immense interest. This highly ambitious film opens with Reed living among bohemians/radicals in New York & Provincetown and charts his love affair with both Louise Bryant and communism. The first part of the film is more successful, where Bryant/Reed's affair goes up & down and Jack Nicholson comes between them in a brilliant portrayal of playwright Eugene O'Neill. This section is wonderfully photographed by Vittorio Storaro, the photographer of such brilliant films as The Conformist and Apocalypse Now Redux. Then as the relationship develops into marriage, various spectres rise: the conflict between love & principles, World War I and the complex world of socialism in America at that time (the so-called Red Decade).
The latter half of the film, which sees Reed and Bryant go to Russia, where the revolution occurred and Reed wrote his classic account of it Ten Days That Shook the World. Again, Moscow looks stunning- though the film descends into a more conventional form- we get a sub-Zhivago reunion , Keaton's proto-feminist character is neutueured by devotion and we even get an action sequence (though this does end with the symbolic Reed chasing after a cart- the same shot as we saw from the opening shot of Reed in Mexico). The final scenes, where Reed is TB afflicted and Bryant sees a young child (the obligatory one they never had) is extremely conventional and melodramatic.
The best feature of the film is the use of the 'witnesses'- people from the contemporary life of Bryant & Reed who offer opinions and perceptions on them. These are wonderful as they contradict each other and can be seen as Beatty stating that the sections where he & Keaton play Reed & Bryant it is fiction and the definitive notion of truth & realism in the biopic is impossible. Though Robert Rosenstone in Visions of the Past questions this technique- which could just be a result of being 'used' by Beatty for research purposes. The film was even satirised by Keaton's ex-lover Woody Allen with 1983's Zelig.
Reds is one of the great films of American cinema, that would influence later directors such as Oliver Stone- the only criticism is that it tries to be too many things. Still, when was the last time you saw a high-budget film that tackled communism,sexual equality ,feminism, revolution and socialism? At this price it would be offensive not to watch this film- though to read behind the film, it might be pertinent to read the books Romantic Revolutionary & Ten Days that Shook the World. Having said that, the latter (Reed's masterpiece) fictionalised actual events- which puts into question the historian's frequent criticism of this film and the biopic in general. I suppose the equivalent film to Reds in the 1990's was Titanic, which demonstrates how far American cinema has sunk regarding ambition. Reds is one of Beatty's finest works also and a labour of love that was well worth making - even if it caused Beatty to vanish from cinema for several years following. A true classic...
Reds is a film that won a few Oscars, but seems somewhat forgotten. It was an anomalie, an end product of New Hollywood like Kagemusha, Heaven's Gate, One from the Heart and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. They probably don't make them like this anymore. Beatty didn't make another film for years. But in a time such as these, this film has many pertinent messages in and falls in not only with the recent likes of Good Night & Good Luck, but American souls like Abraham Lincoln, John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck and folk like Reed, Goldman & Bryant. Reds is proof that liberal isn't a dirty word and is a brilliant epic worthy of David Lean with plenty of political detail, a forgotten film that finally is on DVD...