Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Eleven

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#11 — Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)
Warren Beatty has been credited as the sole director of exactly three films, two of which can be used to demonstrate how admirable ambition can turn into plain mediocrity. And yet, every time Beatty makes rumblings of helming a new project, there’s a flurry of excitement of the sort usually reserved for the like of unprolific auteur titans likes Terrence Malick and, formerly, Stanley Kubrick. Some of that is an acknowledgement of the way the famously exacting star had his fingers deep into the creative processes of excellent films from Bonnie of Clyde to Bugsy, but it also, I believe, represents a deep hopefulness that he’s got another crazily bold masterpiece in him. It’s a hope, in effect, for the return of the cinematic artist who presided over Reds.

It’s hard to overstate the audaciousness of the film’s very existence. Just over a year after the United States elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency, inspired in part by his old Hollywood reduction of the world into the white hat Americans and the black hat Russkies, into theaters came this epic biopic about John Reed, the Oregon-born journalist and devoted communist activist who arguably gained his greatest fame for his accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Beatty doesn’t back away from the politics of his character, either. Despite being completely out of step with the fervent devotion to capitalism that elevated it above both apple pie and baseball on the list of quintessentially American things, Beatty pushes the righteous certainty of Reed in his cause as a truly admirable part of his character, even as it compromises some of his interpersonal relationships. Beatty plays Reed with a hint of the movie star self-assurance that unites most of his finest performances, giving the character an ease and confidence even as he’s essentially turning himself into a member of the walking wounded with his various crusades. He matched by Diane Keaton as Reed’s wife Louise Bryant, in what may be her finest dramatic performance.

Beatty is clearly aiming for the sort of vividly grandiose sweep that David Lean brought to his vast achievements–the film sometimes plays as a sort of Lawrence of Arabia with frozen landscapes in the place of endless desert–but it’s often the smallest details that carry the most weight. For all the beautiful scenery and monumentally staged set pieces, some of the most memorable moments revolve around little more than a few passionate people debating issues in tiny apartments and dingy offices. These people were trying to shifting the foundations of human existences, but they often found the terrain of the heart held the most treacherous journey. The relationship between Reed and Bryant is compromised by an affair she has with the playwright Eugene O’Neill, played with extraordinary skill in the film by Jack Nicholson, perhaps the one actor capable of conveying the fierce intelligence needed for the role.

There’s further nuance added to the film through the regular insertion of documentary-styled talking head interviews with “witnesses,” figures who were as immersed in the causes of the time as Reed himself. The risk of such a technique is that it undercuts the drama by exposing the inevitable fictions of the work. Instead, Beatty artfully weaves these moments in, giving the film a greater authenticity, almost as if they’re ratifying the emotional truth of the work. More importantly, the interview segments tame the scope of the film. No matter how vast the story and its themes may seem, there is a constant reminder of the human element embedded in the tale. These are people with ambition, morality and their own existential aches. They were their histories just as surely as Reed did. In telling one man’s story, Beatty is endeavoring to tell all of their stories. Party of the beauty of Reds is that he accomplishes just that.