[Film Review] Reds (1981)

Reds poster

Title: Reds
Year: 1981
Country: USA
Language: English, Russian, German, French, Finnish
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty
Trevor Griffiths
Music: Stephen Sondheim
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Warren Beatty
Diane Keaton
Jack Nicholson
Maureen Stapleton
Edward Hermann
Jerzy Kosinski
Paul Sorvino
Gene Hackman
M. Emmet Walsh
George Plimpton
Jerry Hardin
Ian Wolfe
Bessie Love
Nicolas Coster
Jan Tríska
Rating: 8.3/10

Reds 1981

Warren Beatty’s biographical saga about Jack Reed (1887-1920), a radical USA journalist, a fervent advocate of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), and the author of TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, running over 3 hours. REDS, scored 12 Oscar nominations (with 3 wins) and finally won Beatty an Oscar for BEST DIRECTOR among a combined 14 nominations throughout his eminent career so far (as actor, director, screen-writer and producer), undeniably can be reckoned as his most enterprising and taxing project, and is also notorious for its behind-the-scene stories such as Beatty’s extravagant conceit in the director’s chair and his off-screen romance with co-star Keaton (which ended right before the extended shooting days).

Political elements aside, REDS quintessentially is an ode to the undying love between Jack Reed and his wife Louise Bryant (Keaton), also a radical journalist, since during most of its lengthy narrative, the latter is the unaltered focus of this epic and Beatty assiduously tells their relationship from her angle. Due to the similar political slant, they attract to each other almost instantly, when WWI edges to its end. But being labeled as an “ exhibitionist” because of her feminist stance, Louise suffers from frustration to be taken seriously for her work as a writer and abetted by Jack’s constant absence due to his job, she starts off a romance with Eugene O’Neill (Nicholson, who steals the limelight assertively with his trenchant dissection of their ménage à trois), the Nobel laureate playwright and their common friend, in spite of their vastly conflicting political standings. Things go downhill after they get married when monogamy stands in the way of their life, selfishly and immaturely Louise uses Eugene to get back at Jack, only to be taken aback by Jack’s philandering notion of partnership.

They separate for a while, until in 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution, becomes the essential catalyst of their undimmed love, witnessing the revolution in the front row, and realizing what a sea change their Socialist belief can make in the war-trodden foreign land, they work shoulder-to-shoulder as comrades, write first-hand reports of the revolution and return to USA with an evolutionarily reshaped prospect about life and future, which is also where their political ideologies diverge.

Jack passionately throws himself into politics, to bring Communism to his native soil, against the widespread fear that it would also usurp the democratic government of United States, whereas Louise hold a different opinion towards the issue, as she claims, she is deeply inspired by the Russian revolution and how proletariat can stand up and takes the regime, but she is also clear-minded about the fact that it is completely another situation for socialism to bloom here in America. Soon the schism emerges in the budding but vulnerable socialist party, their love is under another critical test when Jack defies Louise’s advice and accepts the assignment to go to Moscow and seek endorsement from Grigory Zinoviev (acclaimed writer Kosinski in his first film role) for his party. His journey turns out to be a disaster, he is briefly incarcerated in Finland and then as an exchanged hostage, he stays with the communist party in Russia and stands for a mouthpiece of the socialism in USA, but soon grows increasingly disillusioned with Zinoviev’s policies, meanwhile his health deteriorates drastically, a final reunion with Louise seems to be an immense mercy for him.

Beatty painstakingly interposes interviews of more than thirty real-life “witnesses” who personally know Jack and Louise into the chronicle account, sometimes as a voice-over juxtaposing with the story, offering soundbites and titbits to enrich our perspectives of them and a larger social background at then. The documentary approach is quite risky, not only it adds considerable length to the already protracted magnitude, it also takes a chance with a more elaborate editing process in the post-production, how come it failed to nab the editing trophy in the Oscar?

REDS received four acting nominations in four categories, firstly, Beatty is apparently too old for the role (Reed dies at the age of 33, while Beatty was already over 40 during the filming), but if one is not familiar with the archetype, his very sympathetic portrayal is fairly engaging, we can feel for Jack’s idealistic enthusiasm, his intense affection to Louise (there are at least three sex scenes to prove his prowess, even after he loses one kidney), and the root of his tragedy – his erudite perception of the society fatally conflicts with his simplistic modus operandi. Keaton, by comparison, really busts her chops to embody Louise as a flawed but flesh-and-blood human being, sometimes she is wilful, vexatious, self-contradictory, other times, she is lucid, gallant and endearing, all reflect from her imperfect visage, this is her best dramatic performance to date.

As charismatic as Nicholson, the only Oscar winner among the quartet is Maureen Stapleton, finally paid her due for her fourth attempt in the category, she plays Emma Goldman, the no bullshit anarchist, whose limited presence seems rather paltry against the film’s duration, and she is not even a key player in the game, but whenever she is on the screen, Stapleton seizes every opportunity to remind viewers of her progressive thinking and truculent spirit, all intrigues us to know her character more, when will be a biography film about her? Emma Thompson can nail that role. All in all, this film is an important cinematic legacy which conducts a non-judgemental and thorough account on a highly contentious topic at a tumultuous time through the lives of Jack and Louise, a commendable extravaganza, probably Beatty’s best work in any aspect, and I have a taxi waiting, now…


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