Warren Beatty's 1981 John Reed biopic Reds always aimed to be an old-fashioned, continent-spanning, three-hours-with-intermission historical epic, though Beatty intentionally undercut the grandness by peppering the movie with the kind of mumbly, naturalistic acting popularized by his generation of movie stars. One minute, Beatty runs through a dusty Spanish landscape, dodging explosions and armies of extras. The next, he and Diane Keaton circle each other in a dingy flat, yelling about infidelities and stepping on each other's lines. The injection of "reality" is as artificial in its way as any broad Hollywood strokes, but it fits the mode Reds stays in throughout. This is a movie about deflating fantasy without turning anybody off.
Reed was an idealistic journalist who put his convictions into action, by working for socialist causes in Spain, America, and lastly Russia, where he documented the Bolshevik revolution in the book Ten Days That Shook The World. Beatty spends the first half of Reds covering Reed's rise to prominence and his tumultuous affair with proto-feminist Louise Bryant (played by Keaton); in the second half, he deals with the practical realities of life after a revolution, as ideals take a beating in the name of political expediency. Reed's story is part of the never-ending cycle through which dreams curdle into mere wisdom.
Beatty makes that point as palatable as possible, with the help of a lush Stephen Sondheim score, handsome Vittorio Storaro cinematography, elegant Richard Sylbert production design, and world-class editing by Dede Allen and Craig McKay, who deliver stirring montages while holding Beatty's strongest images long enough that they sear. And in his brightest bit of conceptualizing, Beatty frames the action by inserting actual interviews with people who remember Reed and the early days of the worldwide communist movement. On one level, the interviews are another nod to the cinéma vérité tradition that Reds tries to acknowledge without embracing. But the now-frail talking heads also make a point just with their creaky voices and trembling hands. John Reed died a hero to the American left, but Reds somewhat bitterly implies that he might only be a hero because he died young, before he could forget what he stood for.
Key features: A multi-part Laurent Bouzereau documentary about the making of the movie, featuring reluctant but invaluable participation by Beatty, who stubbornly says he doesn't approve of DVD extras.