It would be an understatement to call Reds a movie about the rise of communisam in America, or more accurately, an attempt of it. The main charaters were Amerians; they were comunists too, whatever the hell that means by now. But to put that kind of a stamp on it would be a massive simplification. It belongs to a special category of movies I have a big weaknes for - long, ambitious and imperfect, the imperfetion being a natural consequence of ambitiousness, and therefore, not really a flaw. It is also a near masterpiece of controled and naturalistic epic filmmaking.
The picture goes in many different directions, all of them filled with intriguing and chalenging ideas looking for a context. If you get interested enough to devote yourself in finding it, the move will proove to be a rich emotional and intelectuall expiriance.
A love story set against the backdrop of World War I and Octobar revolution, it cronicles the stormy relationship between two jurnalists: John Reed (Warren Beatty), who wrote Ten Days That Shoock the World, one of the best known accounts of revolution and Louise Brayat (Diane Keaton), who was with him in Petrograd during those historical events. The story actually starts in 1912 in Portland, where frustrated Bryant is slowly getting tired of scribbling to her narrow minded fellow citizens. The chance for salvation comes when she meets the already famous jurnalist John Reed, who's smart enough to gasp the bigger picture of the events to come, and cocky enough to tell it publicaly. When he offers her one way ticket to New York with him, she has enough sense to except the chalange.
There, they get right in the middle of a flourishing bohemian scene in Greenich Vilage, where arguments about free love and monogamy are just as important as the ones about the war and growing attraction to socialisam. Reed is already an established name in those circles, but Bryant, with her still undetermined stance regarding the current issues, finds it hard to keep up with the likes of Eugene O' Neal (Jack Nicholson), Max Eastman (Edward Hermann) and legandary anarchist Emma Goldman (Maurine Stapleton). The fact that Reed always seems to be on the road doesn't help.
The first part works as well as anything Beaty has participated in. This film was his baby, more than 10 years in production, so the feeling of complete mastery of the time period doesn't come as a surprise. It's evident not so much in accurate depiction of every single connection (absolute historical accuracy is not a moviemaker's priority), but in showing an extremely believable feel of a time period when everything seemed possible. The display of these people, some of them already legends, and their rebeliosness would be tempting by itsself, but Beaty richens it aditionaly by bringing a great deal of humor and inteligence to his writing (together with Trevor Groffiths). Regardless of the epic scope, the most interesting scenes turn out to be ones where characters simply talk or argue.
The additional dimension comes from the interviews with the surviviors from the era, some of them looking less ancient than they should. Most knew Reed and Bryant in person; some befriended them. Though their memories are substantialy blured by the enormous time gap, the rhetoric is still sharp and personal. Covering a wide variety of subjects, from our heroes political beliefs to their relationship, style and even clothing choices, they give additional credibility to the picture.
Inspite of the conventional epic structure, the director manages to do something essential for the succes of the picture from the artistic side - Reed is kept enigmatic enough right to the very end. Yes, he is an idealist, some would add an atribute naive to that; some would say it's an easy verdict from today's point of view, or the one in 1981 for that matter. But there is another Reed lurking beneath the surfface. He likes showing his briliance in front of the big crowds, being in political minority and could even be conventional if he stoped and did some rethinking of his priorities. The interviewed help a great deal with this.
Warren Beaty was in the second or third wave of method actors, and here he brings to his Reed a well nuanced amount of voulnlebility characteristic for that acting style which, combined with his flamboyance, makes this one of the best performances he ever gave. Keaton, than considered a surprising casting choice for this role, has a tough character in her hands. She has to work harder than any other actor here. Louise knows she wants to be where the action is. When she gets there, than she'll worry about finding her role. That is, I assume, not an easy motivation to base a character on and, if we understood her at the end, that's mostly to Keaton's credit.
There is a richness in supporting players category, as it ought to be in a picture this long. This includes Gene Hackman, Edward Hermann, M. Emmet Walsh, Jerzy Kosinski and best of all Jack Nicholson and Maurine Stapleton. Nicholson cynicism gets proper words from the screenwriting tandem, as he brings some conventional, in your face sexual desires and plain human honesty to his scens with Keaton, deviating from the rest of the cast. And Stapleton's authority is so strong she could convince anyone they don't need to bother with an opinion if it differs from her own.
For a movie with two great subjects, the romantic and the political one, Reds triumphs in that sense that it ultimately offers more than satisfying payoff on both fields. That gives even the viewers who choose one part as the core of the film a chance to be rewarded at the end. I personaly liked it as a whole. It's one of those movies that seem to defie the passing of the time. I can't speak about 1981 with enough credibility; that was long before my era. But today, in a time when many intelectuals proclaim the death of idealisam, the ideas of Reds are more than worth visiting.