Reds (1981) Directed by Warren Beatty
Political ideologies come and go. It's amazing how evil some politicians turn out to be that it can make even the most despicable political views seem appealing. We saw it at the start of the Iraq War with Blair avoiding mass protests and a nation abandon left-leaning politics to embrace the right (moderately and to extremes). When I was just getting interested in politics, during Thatcher's first years, socialism and even communism (who claims to be communist nowadays?) were seen as preferable political choices. Not a hard decision for one to make, I've been left-leaning all my life. Cast your mind back to 1981, and the USA's own right-wing monster can be found with Ronald Reagan in the White House. In this climate, Warren Beatty (himself known to dabble in thoughts of entering politics) makes his movie Reds based on America's most celebrated communist. Hello John Reed, the journalist who captured the Bloshevik Revolution in 1917 better than anyone with his book Ten Days That Shook The World. Reed is the only American buried at The Kremlin.
We seem to have a public perception problem with Beatty. Is it all those stories of him being a playboy with a compulsive sex disorder? Was it the relationship with Madonna? Beatty has always appeared vain and been viewed with suspicion by the public, but no one can ignore his influence on modern cinema. Whilst most people credit Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider ushering a new kind of American film, the real deal was Beatty producing and starring in Bonnie & Clyde, which could be the most influential American film of the last 40 plus years. So Reds was the movie where Beatty got the credit, not only directing but starring, co-writing and producing. It's our perceptions of Beatty perhaps that means a movie as good as Reds continues to be undervalued even as it endures 30 years on. Reds attempts to go deep into America's left-wing radicalism in the pre-WWI years and also covers the first Russian Revolution, whilst in-between chronicling Reed's on off relationship with his wife Louise Bryant. Who said ambition was dead?
Beatty got a great team together for Reds. English political playwright Trevor Griffiths co-wrote. Original music by Stephen Sondheim. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (has anyone filmed Finland, used here in place of Russia so beautifully?) Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill is perfect, with great support from Maureen Stapleton among a strong supporting cast. Diane Keaton as Bryant is essential here, whilst Beatty as Reed is very good too. The real life talking heads, referred to here as The Witnesses, who knew Reed and Bryant fill in the story's gaps in often witty ways. Reds is not perfect, its political narratives sometimes come across as preachy. But Beatty and Keaton's romance is given enough scope and realism to engage and emote. The picture about the American communist most people have forgotten about looks and feels better than ever in 2011. Reds is interesting, provocative cinema.
Four years ago I came home from a long trip in the USA and the first movie we (Nick&I) watched at home together was Reds. Personally, it was a time of questioning how I can live a life of a traveling artist and have a happy relationship at the same time. Reds addressed this issue and thus immediately became one of my favorite movies ever. I think it also jump-started me as a Warrenologist and fueled my Annie Hall -based love for Diane Keaton.
Reds is a political epic, but its depth comes from the more fictionalized content: the relationship between the journalists Jack Reed and Louise Bryant. If you loved English Patient (1996) or the more recent The Constant Gardener (2005), you should absolutely dig out Reds. I must have watched Reds at least five times by now, because I remember scenes line by line. Diane Keaton's Louise is a wonderful portrayal of a woman in the early 20th century struggling to define herself and her actions against what is socially acceptable for women.
I love what Reds does to 'reality'. The films interjects talking heads telling about what they can remember about the communist movement in the USA and about Jack and Louise, but the old men and women reveal that their memories could be mistaken and that they cannot be sure if what they remember is factual. It also takes historical people in historical events, but imagines their intimate life in detail conjuring up emotional connections to issues, which could otherwise remain distant and difficult to relate to.
The scenes in Reds, which take place in Russia, were actually filmed in Finland in 1979. Helsinki is a stand-in for St. Petersburg. I have to admit that over time I have come to take this fact personally. I wish I could say my mother or one of my aunts has been an extra in the crowd. I wish I could say they bumped into Diane and Warren on some downtown street and they were both warm and down-to -earth, yet glimmering with stardom. Sadly no, I have not heard of any such stories. I guess my family was a bunch of young lefties roaming around Helsinki. They probably saw Warren and Diane
as representatives of all things too American. Go figure – but I can still walk on one of the movie sets, the Senate Square in Helsinki and sit on the steps of the University Main Building thinking of Diane and thinking of Warren.