I love epics. The longer the film, the symphony, the novel, the greater the opportunity to immerse oneself in the work and the greater the sense of achievement, of catharsis at the end. "Reds" is an epic, but it is difficult for me to love it, to embrace it. It seems to me to be the work of some immense ego, no matter how fine or important the rest of the characters, no matter how strenuous the efforts made in recreating the times and places in which the film is set.
For this is not so much a film about American socialists and communists at the time of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, but rather, in essence, Warren Beatty's epic focuses on the last few years of the life of his character John/Jack Reed. Everything else impinges on this premise, even the smallest of details of Reed's affair with Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton), which makes up the bulk of the movie. There is scarcely a shot without Beatty in the frame, and since the film lasts over three hours, this can become trying. Many of the scenes are superfluous to the central story and one can only speculate that the film is less to do with Jack Reed and more to do with Warren Beatty.
Indeed, others have already commentated upon the personal links between Reed and Beatty, not only in their personal circumstances but also in their political and philosophical outlooks. Reed was a writer; Beatty is a film-maker. At what point does the artist - the writer, the film-maker - become a polemicist? I am not unsympathetic to Reed's/Beatty's political views, and the story of how Reed, an American left-wing journalist ended up in Russia to report on the revolution, is one of immense interest, especially as he not only has to wrestle with contrary opinions and facts of everyday life but also has to wrestle with his own beliefs and conscience. But over three hours?
What helps me forgive Beatty his apparent self-indulgence are the witnesses. At the very start and throughout the following 188 minutes, the film interweaves the testimonies of those who lived through these years and knew Jack Reed personally. They speak direct to the camera in front of a plan black background, telling their fascinating stories and anecdotes. They are not a Greek chorus, but rather witnesses to the story's own veracity. They are touching, brutal, funny and charming. They break up the unwieldy canvas into manageable pieces, allowing the viewer space to breathe and reflect. Without them, the movie would lose much of its fascination.
Finally, for those wondering whether the extras on the 25th anniversary edition are worth the investment, well yes, they are! They comprise a series of interlocking films. Many of the stars and of the production team are interviewed and can give their considered opinions of their work after a quarter century's reflection. Naturally, Warren Beatty dominates proceedings, but it was his project after all: actor, screenwriter, director and producer. And it's welcome to experience his self-deprecating manner. These films are, in order: "The Rising" (how the film came about); "Comrades" (the cast); "Testimonials" (the witnesses); "The march" (locations and cinematography); "Revolution" (filming the big scenes); and "Propaganda" (music and other postproduction).
All in all, then, a finely flawed film of epic proportions.