Beatty’s Film, Reds

Film on a Revolution Was a Revolution Itself

“What kind of lunatic would make a movie like this and ask someone to invest in it?” asked Warren Beatty, reached by telephone recently at his home in Los Angeles. It was a rhetorical question, since the movie he was talking about was “Reds,” the three-and-a-half-hour historical epic he wrote (with Trevor Griffiths), directed and starred in 25 years ago….

“Reds” remains a superior history lesson, thanks to Mr. Beatty’s thorough command of the material and to his inclusion of real-life “witnesses” to the life and times of Reed. Their faces and voices give this romance some documentary ballast, and make it, now that they are gone, a moving archive of faded memories.

Curiously, though, the movie may be less nostalgic now than it was in 1981. You might think the opposite, given the inglorious expiration of the Soviet Union, the founding of which feeds the idealism of the film’s main characters (who do, it should be noted, express some misgivings at the authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies evident within the revolution, even in its early days). The strains of “The Internationale” do not set many pulses racing nowadays. But the dwindling of the socialist cause may also make it possible to look at “Reds” with fresh eyes, and to feel the nearness of the long-ago story it tells.

“I’d say it’s infinitely more accessible now,” Mr. Beatty said. He recently attended a screening held by the Directors Guild in Los Angeles, and was startled by the intensity of the response. “The resonance to the film now was 180 degrees different from then,” he said. “The receptivity to the jokes of the old people, to John Reed, to the speeches he makes, is much greater now.”

And the reason for this, he believes, is that “Reds” is, in large part, a movie about American politics during wartime, and about the opposition to American hegemony at an earlier stage of its development. The fact that Reed, Bryant and their allies initially come together in opposition to American involvement in World War I — a war whose motive Reed succinctly identifies as “profit” — is something current audiences are likely to notice, and perhaps be provoked by. But in 1981, Mr. Beatty noted, “this movie was so harmless that Ron and Nancy Reagan, who I always considered friends, arranged a screening in the White House.”

A return engagement seems unlikely, for any number of reasons. But Mr. Beatty, who declined to speak to the American press when “Reds” came out, and who agreed to be interviewed for the making-of documentary that is one of the DVD’s extra features, regards his movie with renewed zeal….

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plot summary

Few filmmakers other than Warren Beatty would have had the courage and vision to fashion an epic film from the life of famed American Communist John Reed (who is the only US citizen buried in the Kremlin). The film is an effort to humanize a political movement that has previously been depicted on screen in a series of unsubtle and prejudicial broad strokes. The film begins in 1915, when Reed (Beatty) makes the acquaintance of married Portland journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). So persuasive is Reed’s point of view–and so charismatic is Reed himself– that Bryant kicks over the traces and joins Reed and his fellow radicals. Among the famous personages depicted herein are Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Max Eastman (Richard Herrmann)….

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Vincent Canby’s Review of Reds

Only the very narrow-minded will see the film as Communist propaganda. Though Reed remained at his death a card-carrying Communist and was buried in the Kremlin, the movie is essentially as ideological as the puppy that whimpers when Louise stalks out. ”Reds” is not about Communism, but about a particular era, and a particularly moving kind of American optimism that had its roots in the 19th century….

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