Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)


Warren Beatty’s lumbering Reds is kind of an ’80s response to both the staid prestige biopics William Dieterle made at Warner Bros. in the ’30s and David Lean’s gargantuan epics, specifically Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. But Dieterle had economy, and Lean had a profoundly good sense of composition and majesty; Beatty simply isn’t much of a storyteller or a stylist, and his neck-stuck-out moment, about the life of journalist and revolutionary John Reed, is a badly edited, wildly self-indulgent mess: the absolute apex of extraneous, kitchen-sink filmmaking.

Admittedly, the violent rage into which Reds sent me when first I sat through it was not repeated this year, in part because I spread my exposure to it over several days, a practice I’ve come to use frequently as it’s apparently now the only way I can tolerate a film that runs much over two hours. Perversely, my increased problem with long movies has allowed me to more ably see their merits. Reds is a well-meaning film in every way, soberingly capturing the tension and volatility of Russia in and just before 1917. It helps now that the politics are a little more familiar to me, but good heavens. Beatty’s fatal rendering of Reed’s romance with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) — periodically weaved into a weird love triangle with gape-mouthed Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill (one of his flattest performances ever) — could not be more bizarrely sprawling, deeply uninteresting, and tone-deaf. The first love scene starts with “I’d like to see you with your pants off.”

Comparions to the loonier, more populist Zhivago are hard to shake simply because the two films are structured so similarly and revolve around the same era and crises. Whereas Lean effectively fused his historical drama into the romance that more keenly interested him, Beatty cannot seem to determine what story he’s actually telling and divides the film awkwardly into frivolous kissy-faces slash lovers’ quarrels and the drive and dread of social change; it’s as though he loves the idea of the film he’s making and isn’t interested in the mechanics of, y’know, directing it. His poor actors, especially hapless Diane Keaton, are clearly bewildered, standing with their arms crossed waiting to be told what on earth they’re here for during their lengthy game of charades at the Beatty house.

Lean’s sweeping romance was lovable Hollywood bullshit, but in Reds, the portion of the story that actually matters and is somewhat competently handled is the Russian Revolution. The film to which Reed’s story longs to serve as a basis is buried somewhere here in a lot of dross and melodramatic crescendos that involve Keaton’s highly amusing treks across ice floes and foreboding cityscapes to find Her Love, after all their passionate writerly debates and distractions. It’s an arms-held-out paean to great love, or something, but so little work has been done to actually give the audience an investment in the matter that we can’t justify even trying to feel the represented emotions. All of the imagination and creativity that would require was spent on a goofy A-level cast list, moved around like paper dolls. Only Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman does anything interesting with her part; even Beatty himself has no clue how to “be” Jack Reed without smirking and showboating in that exclusively, classically douchey Warren Beatty manner.

So with the pacing itself already flagging, already just about begging for a revolutionary mass walkout, Beatty throws in these talking-head interviews which, however interesting in and of themselves, only serve to overexplain the narrative he’s trying to get across. It’s an act of desperation, a sledgehammer safety net as much as the crazed casting decisions, and seems to indicate that the director was simply lost at sea like so many other actors who make the transformation and then receive baffling recognition by the Academy, from Redford to Costner to Gibson. The entire film, which plays interview clips, makes points and then illustrates them, is a merciless act of telling-not-showing, thus anti-cinematic. The sole moment of profundity comes upon Reed and Bryant’s initial arrival in pre-Bolshevik Russia; a conversation simply stops, sobered by the misery before them. Nothing here is as potent as the band-instrument massacre sequence in Zhivago, and that was already a deeply compromised, rather silly film.

With only better attention paid to characterization and length, Reds might have been worthwhile; it’s fine that we never come to like Reed or find him deeply sympathetic (he has a habit of sticking himself right where he doesn’t belong, much like the actor playing him here) but the distance we feel from him, as well as from Bryant, keeps this from shining as a human story. Then there’s an hour and a half of dull speechifying and “love conquers all” bullshit, plus a sappy ending. At least if you watch The Way We Were it doesn’t pretend to be Important.

Beatty’s attempts to liven things up with humor don’t belong either, not that they’re funny anyway. The film’s technically strong and hardly risible, but it’s the very picture of excess, and fails to land social points that ought to be quite relevant. Not as much a crashing bore as I remembered, but a crashing failure still? Yes.

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