April 9, 2016

Reds (1981)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Warren Beatty
Stars: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson

What it's about. A star-studding biopic on Jack (John?) Reed (Warren Beatty), a communist labor agitator, journalist, and politician during the Woodrow Wilson era. Reed weds Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who is less successful as a photographer and writer than she is as the heartbreaker of the left-wing literary elite. She has an affair with famous alcoholic playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) and repeatedly argues and reconciles with Reed.

Meanwhile, Reed becomes captivated with the Bolsheviks in Russia, who are threatening to seize power from the weak provisional government following the fall of the Tzar. He travels there with Bryant, to witness the Russian Revolution, the subject of his lasting work "Ten Days That Shook the World." Reed has a stormy relationship with the Bolsheviks, who nonetheless prize his potential as a Western propagandist. But Reed's last kidney is failing, drawing our long epic to a close.

How others will see it. Reds is one of those films that was heralded by critics upon release, was nominated for (and won) many festival awards, and then lapsed into relative obscurity. Although it lost less money than Beatty's next movie, the infamous bomb Ishtar, the box office was nonetheless tepid at 35M, despite twelve Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor) and three wins: Best Director (Beatty), Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), and Best Cinematography (Vittorio Storaro).

Today, though, the film has an unimpressive 16K user votes at imdb.com. The user rating of 7.5 out of 10 is fairly high, and the most reliable demographic, women over 45, grade it 8.1 out of 10. Those in favor (in the majority) see it as acting tour-de-force. Detractors condemn it for its liberal sympathies and pokey pace, and consider it boring.

How I felt about it. I am glad that Beatty did not win Best Actor. Admittedly likable, he plays about the same character in all of his movies, a well-intentioned and ambitious but clueless individual. But Beatty knows a good script and is not afraid to allow his character to appear foolish.

Nicholson, too, seems to be channeling a prior character, in his case from Five Easy Pieces. Stapleton's win appears to be another of Oscar's sop-to-the-veteran trophy. But I do think that Diane Keaton did better work than the winner that year, quavering Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Keaton has several challenging and impressive scenes, and it's no wonder that she has never had any difficulty finding work.

Controversial author (and neophyte actor) Jerzy Kosinski is wonderful as intellectual and political zealot Zinoviev. Gene Hackman is as entertaining as ever, while would-be Keaton seducer George Plimpton is merely annoying.

As for Reds as a movie, apart from its interesting and famous cast, it holds up fairly well. It moves slowly, unsurprising given its 195 minute running time. The elderly talking heads that appear at the beginning, and show up now and then thereafter, are a nice and unusual touch. They include historial Will Durant, who died a month before the film was released, and another old man who does a fair job singing "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard."

The scenes in Russia are more interesting than those in America, where most of the characters are pretentious circle-jerk artists except for Jack (John?) Reed, who doesn't mind get arrested while inciting laborers to join a socialist union.

The film makes sure to get across the irony that the so-called worker's paradise of the Soviet Union instead turns out to be a repressive and murderous regime that does not tolerate dissent. As is the case with Russia today, the leaders are far more interested in looting the country than upgrading the welfare of the proletariat, who are to be brainwashed, monitored, and if suspected, exiled to Siberia or simply executed.

Maureen Stapleton figures this out quickly. Jack is slower on the draw, perhaps because Russia is the best hope for his pipe dream of a global socialist labor movement. In any event, it seems unlikely that Louise Bryant would have taken such personal risks to travel to Russia during the Red-White War to be with her feckless and imperiled husband, even if she did do so in real life. For such a long movie, Reed's downfall comes quickly: one moment he is running across the countryside as if late for a train, and a few scenes later he is babbling from his death bed.