No other movie star in history has used power with such daring and wisdom as Warren Beatty with Reds. This vivid heroic saga — which Beatty not only acted in but also produced, directed and cowrote — brings to life the tumultuous global upheaval that surrounded the First World War. Marxism, feminism, free love: These subjects might have assured box-office success in the late Sixties, when Beatty first considered filming the life of activist reporter John Reed. Releasing this movie in the Reagan Eighties would seem to be professional suicide. But the drama, romance, humor and spectacle of Reds should transcend the conservative miasma of the moment.
Not since Lawrence of Arabia has there been a serious historical movie of this sweep, complexity and intelligence. The events — the violent attempts to organize American labor, the early days of Bohemian Greenwich Village, the Russian Revolution — and the characters, including Reed, Louise Bryant (his wife), Eugene O’Neill and Emma Goldman, are so well integrated that it is impossible to separate the personal from the political. In a sense, Reed and Bryant starred in the social-sexual revolutions of their day. Reed’s coverage of Pancho Villa’s army earned him the title of the American Kipling even before he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, his flashing account of the Bolshevik uprising. Though Louise Bryant eventually became a recognized journalist as well, history remembers her as a woman of mystery who captivated men of genius, including Eugene O’Neill. It is Beatty’s inspiration to treat these two people as stars in the constellations of their culture.
Beatty punctuates that point with a unique device. Thirty-two “witnesses” are interviewed about the life and times of the Reeds, who strove mightily to capture a place in history. But the testimony poignantly illustrates how time has faded the meaning of their existence. These casual, beautifully filmed monologues float in and out of the narrative like poetic commentaries, yet they enable the most uninformed viewer to compose an impressionistic picture of early twentieth-century America.
The key to the film’s success is that Reed and Bryant are bigger than anything anyone says about them. This movie is about people who embody the conflicting drives of an era and are torn apart both by their unresolved personalities and by history. It feels right that these cultural stars of an earlier day should be played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, whose most famous roles (in Shampoo and Annie Hall) epitomize the dynamic uncertainties of our own time.
Judged simply as a solo directorial debut (Beatty’s fluffy Heaven Can Wait was co-directed with Buck Henry), Reds is phenomenally ambitious — and extraordinarily executed. Though Reds does not have the originality to put it in a class with Citizen Kane, it rates very high. As a director, Beatty’s staging and shooting choices are smart, tasteful, even impassioned. As a producer, however, he displays a flair and imagination comparable to Orson Welles’ in his Mercury Theater Days. Like Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, Reds boasts distinguished teamwork:
Co-screenwriter Trevor Griffiths
Though Griffiths shares script credit with Beatty (and others are reported to have contributed), the biggest political speeches have the bristling rhetorical stamp that caused theater critics to deem Griffiths the most fiery English dramatic talent since John Osborne. In Griffiths’ 1970 play, Occupations, a forthright, eloquent political drama, he pitted the tactics and principles of Italian socialist Gramsci, a leader of the factory takeovers in the workers’ uprising of 1920, against a Soviet bureaucrat named Kabak, who was willing to sacrifice Italian workers for the good of the Russian state. Again, in Reds, Griffiths clarifies the differences between idealistic socialists and Soviet bureaucrats, who ruthlessly protect the power achieved by the Bolsheviks in Russia. More important, this movie gives Griffiths his biggest opportunity yet to develop drama dialectically. The movie’s structure is built on points and counterpoints that shift our perceptions of the characters as they change and grow. Beatty and Griffiths give the film’s stirring images sturdy metaphoric underpinnings. The two key shots in the entire film — Reed climbing on a Mexican gun wagon near the beginning and trying to board a Soviet gun wagon near the end — crystallize Reed as a man forever chasing revolution.