21 May 2002 | Mr Jason
'Reds' is one of the finest American films ever made- it is the film that Beatty worked towards from 'Bonnie & Clyde'; tellingly he would not make another film until the excerable 'Ishtar' (which was probably more fun to make than watch).
This film feels like a cross between David Lean ('Dr Zhivago' & 'Lawrence of Arabia' from his oeuvre) and Oliver Stone (in 'Nixon' mode). As with 'Bonnie & Clyde' the right music has been picked for the soundtrack- 'The Internationale' & Keaton's take of '...In my Yard' standout (though the score is taken from Sondheim, with contributions by 'Graduate'-composer Dave Gruisin). The film is brilliantly shot by the great Vittorio Storaro- who uses the same huge talent as he did on Bertolucci's 'Il Conformista' & Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now Redux'. Trevor Griffiths co-wrote this film- though there were contributions from a variety of historians- most notably Robert Rosenstone.
Fans of the film should consult Rosenstone's biography of John Reed ('Romantic Revolutionary') and his chapter on his involvement with and objections to elements in 'Reds' in the book 'Visions of the Past'. This Biopic is an interpretation of a life- as with films like 'Patton' it takes a rather small period of the protaganists total life experience- running from roughly 1914 to Reed's death from typhus in 1920. The film charts Reed's major experiences- his coverage of the First World War and the Mexican War of 1916 is shown- though the major achievments are his ventures into the complexities of American Socialism and American-Communism and his eventual experience in Russia/Soviet Union. The main aspect, the stalwart element throughout the film is his love affair with Louise Bryant- which is where the film begins and ends. Rosenstone believes this may have been a concession to Hollywood audience- but I think it puts the human and greater-backdrop into context.
'Visions of the Past' censures much of Beatty's "twists of truth" and the filmic conventions of compression and dramatic-symbolistic interpretation. This is not a documentary and this is not the actual John Reed. This is a biopic film, starring Warren Beatty playing 'John Reed'. If you want to read about the real thing- try 'Romantic Revolutionary' and Reed's masterpiece 'Ten Days That Shook the World' (which, ironically, came in for criticism regarding Reed's fictionalisation of the events of the Russian Revolution!- see the introduction to the Penguin edition by AJP Taylor). Remember historians have a vested interest in their interpretation- which by placing into lineal order in a history (non-fiction) book they are placing into a narrative form.
Beatty and Keaton are great in this film- with brilliant support from Gene Hackman,Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino & Maureen Stapleton. We see the John Reed on-screen move from Jack Reed journalist to John Reed idealist- the only American to be buried within the walls of the Kremlin.
Various anti-commies have objected to this film as it depicts Communism- well, at the time, this development from Marx/Engels 1848 Manifesto seemed liberating. Many intellectuals pondered on a new collective, non-Capitalist world- which was sadly a utopia that was unattainable. The Russian experiment failed- Beatty alludes to the flaws and Stalinism in the speech which the Party retranslate towards their own ends towards the end of the film. The Russian Revolution was an ideal- the workers of the world uniting- which considering the treatement meted out by the likes of Henry Ford was a good thing. This message is still relevant- as 'free market Capitalism' means market dominance for Superpowers, poverty for others- the persistence of a constant underclass and the eradication of Union Rights. There are as many flawed ethics to Capitalism as Communism- the arms trade (Reagan/Bush to Hussain, the US-sponsored coup in Chile-Cambodia-El Salvador- a policy which continues up to the failed one last week in Venezuala). Beatty takes the socialist ideals which 'Shampoo' alluded to and which he continued in the satirical 'Bulworth'.
Unlike Attenborough's 'Gandhi', this is not a biopic that is too reverent to its focus- many times Reed is shown to be a clown and it is Bryant's character who undergoes the vaster change- giving this film a strong feminist element. The other stroke of genius is the use of the witnesses- who provide a commentary on the film that sometimes contradict each other- alluding to a multiplicity of truths that overlap (as with Stone's alternate scenarios in 'JFK' & 'Nixon'- they themselves are not true but point out that the truth is relative and the accepted historist take may not be any more "real").
The Oscar people exhibited their usual poor taste again- choosing the yawnworthy 'Chariots of Fire' over this for best picture (well, the year before they chose 'Ordinary People' over 'Raging Bull'- and to this day mediocrity wins that coveted award: 'Forrest Gump', 'Schindler's List', 'Gladiator', 'Braveheart', 'Titanic'). This film has an epic scope- that the worthy Oscar winner 'The English Patient' also exhibited- though both show influence from David Lean. This was a time when Hollywood had ambition and made some great films that may not have set the box-office on fire a la 'Jaws' or 'Star Wars' but made some great works for posterity: 'The Deer Hunter', 'New York New York', 'Raging Bull', 'Heavens Gate' and this. 'Reds' is a masterpiece that should be seen by everyone and desrves to take its place alongside classic works by directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.