Reds, Warren Beatty’s massive portrait of John Reed, the man who documented the Russian revolution with his book Ten Days That Shook the World, caused a stir at the time of its release and won Beatty the Best Director Oscar. It hasn’t been seen or shown much since it first came out, partially because Beatty refused to let it be cut for commercial television viewings. He shot about 130 hours of footage, which included interviews with various survivors of Reed’s era, and these interviews are sprinkled tantalizingly throughout the film (Henry Miller is especially penetrating in his analysis of Reed). These old, mostly forgotten names reminisce, crack jokes, forget things, and contradict each other; compelling and salty, they create a real vision of the past.
Using these “witnesses” as a framework was an inspired idea, but the John Reed we hear about in these testimonies is not the one we see on the screen. Beatty was in his early 40s when he played this political icon, and Diane Keaton, who plays Reed’s lover and comrade Louise Bryant, was in her mid-30s. Lovers at the time the film was shot, they’re both too old for their roles, and they seem to be working through their own romantic relationship issues rather than illuminating these two Bohemian figures. Bryant is portrayed as a defensive dilettante forever angry at her own limitations, and Keaton vividly makes you feel her punishing self-doubts, but Louise grows more mature so incrementally over the course of the very long film that we begin to wonder why Reed is so in love with her. Perhaps he needs her inadequacy to bolster his own self-confidence, in which case he could or should have found someone whose insecurities weren’t so obnoxiously on the surface. No one reads Reed or Bryant much anymore, but if anyone cares to investigate, they’ll find that her work is a lot smoother and sharper than his, so it’s hard to know how accurate this portrait of them is.
There’s an attempt to correlate the “free love” theories of the 1910s with the ethos of the swinging ‘70s, but this parallel is mitigated by the mushy home life scenes between John and Louise, where it always seems to be Christmas or someone’s birthday and cute puppies clamor to watch them make lingering love in silhouette (I hope that these voyeuristic canines aren’t supposed to represent the audience). Beatty and Keaton’s fight scenes are flashy, but the “shot/reverse shot” style of the staging makes a fetish of individual performance at the expense of interaction. And likable as they are, neither Beatty nor Keaton looks or sounds like they could make a living as writers; their familiar stuttering, fumbling mannerisms make them seem inarticulate, and when they reel off political dogma, they don’t seem to understand what they’re saying. The editing choices feel a bit arbitrary and confusing sometimes; when Beatty cuts twice to a conversation with Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) in a dark bar, is it supposed to be the same night? Is he trying to replicate the witnesses’ haziness, or has he simply lost track of all the footage he shot? Sometimes the juxtaposition of the witnesses’ comments and the narrative sections don’t make much sense, and the second half of the film gets lost in obscure political arguments, but it really founders in the last third when Beatty stages a fictional journey for Bryant where she trudges across the ice floes to get to Her Man (the real Bryant had moved on and had another lover).
However, though it has been absurdly over-praised by some, there are a lot of enjoyable things in Reds aside from the use of the witnesses. Stephen Sondheim’s score has just the right mixture of period-nickelodeon music and discreetly romantic piano, the Greenwich Village/Provincetown scenes have a heady sort of glamour, and the Russian Revolution sequences that serve as the climax of the first half are excitingly edited and acted. The unusual casting helps, too: Stapleton is terrifically earthy and peremptory as Emma (she won an Oscar), and the use of writer Jerzy Kosinski and Paris Review editor George Plimpton in major roles feels smart and juicy. Gene Hackman livens things up occasionally as a newspaperman, and, best of all, Jack Nicholson’s moody, anguished portrait of Eugene O’Neill all but steals the film. O’Neill has Bryant figured out, but he still gets wounded by her; Nicholson’s slow-burning intensity unearths the endearing vulnerability in Keaton, and their melancholy, painful love scenes stop the movie cold several times. These scenes are so striking that you wish a smaller film could have been made about the two of them and their war with each other, but the lure of David Lean-elephantitis held sway. Reds is finally just an appealingly conventional epic movie-star romance with radical trimmings, but it contains several sharper elements that suggest the colorful period it seeks to recreate.