REDS (1981) A look back at Warren Beatty’s tour de force

Reds (1981)
image courtesy of IMDB.com

Just before the last credit crawls on the screen at the end of REDS, the voice of one of the “witnesses” says “…grand things are ahead, worth living and worth dying for…”.  The witness is referring to John “Jack” Reed, the main character of the film but one wonders if this could also refer to the writer, director, and star of the film as well.  If you know Warren Beatty’s career then you certainly know that he has been the master at convincing producers, cast members, crew and audiences that if they give him the chance “grand things are ahead.”  REDS, his passion project about American journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Communist Party in the United States as well as his intense coverage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, is a grand achievement of cinematic brilliance.  The film is not without its faults.  Some would say that Beatty bit off more than he could chew with such a large scale production or that he was maniacal and egotistical on set causing friction among everyone involved with the film.  Both of these are fair criticisms.  With a fresh eye I’m going to look deeper at the greatness and shortcomings of this epic and try to offer a humble critique.

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA and Mise en scene

The attention to detail in this film is nothing short of perfection.  This is not Beatty’s first time making a period piece as we know from BONNIE AND CLYDE where he marvelously brought to life  Depression Era Texas.  In REDS he goes a step further with Progressive Era New York.  The moment “Louise Bryant” played impeccably by Diane Keaton steps off a trolley car with the Flatiron building in the background I was lost in time.  Nothing of this film felt fake or portrayed.  Horses strolling down Greenwich Village streets.  Dark, candlelit basement bars where Jack Nicholson, dressed in suspenders drinking whiskey, plays the intense “Eugene O’Neill.”  Louise sitting on the beach reading a letter from Jack Reed, looking like the subject of an Impressionist painting rather than a Hollywood actress.  The entire film is a collection of theses shots that are as beautiful as they are authentic. While Beatty had the vision it is clear that the real credit goes to Vittorio Storaro.  Fresh off of his Academy Award win for Best Cinematography for APOCALYPSE NOW, Storaro would be awarded by the Academy again with his second of three wins for Cinematography for this film.

Outside of the New York city atmosphere was where Storaro really flexed his artistic muscles.  Early in the film when Jack and Louise vacation at the beach there are several breathtaking shots besides Louise’s letter reading scene.  Whether it is group gatherings on the beach or Jack and Louise strolling alone through the sand dunes, the filtered shots make the landscape and characters glow in the warm light.  Later in the film, when Louise is trekking across the Finnish tundra, we also see a long shot of the cold, snow covered landscape beaming with the reflection of the sunset.  Storaro counters these warm and cozy images with some beautifully darker images of those very same locations.  Whether it is Eugene O’Neill walking on the beach at dusk or the Finnish landscape after dark the frame is drenched in a cool blue texture matching the intensity of theses scenes.

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The most interesting and effective scenes of the film are, not surprisingly, the sequence of Jack and Louise’s eyewitness account of the ‘Ten days That Shook The World.”  These two characters played magnificently by Keaton and Beatty(more so by Keaton) capture the beauty, intellect, danger, and romance of their collective experience in Russia.  While it was no surprise that their romance would rekindle when they arrived in Petrograd, it wasn’t sappy or overly dramatic.  In fact I believe that the portrayal of Louise as a witness to not only the drama of the Russian Revolution but also the transformation of Jack from American journalist to Communist revolutionary was riveting.  I don’t know why Beatty felt the need to add eyewitness testimonies sprinkled in between the narrative action but I really wish he hadn’t.  The wide eyed close-ups of Diane Keaton cut with shots of Beatty giving rousing speeches to crowds of Russian workers were so much more effective.  Everytime the film got some narrative momentum going it unfortunately was cut off by a “PBS-style” documentary commentary.

The signature shot of the film is Louise Bryant as she watches “Jack”, slightly raised above a crowd of people cheering as he makes a grand spectacle.  But really the entire film is us, the audience, cheering as we watch Warren Beatty, high up on the screen making a grand spectacle.

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