Reds (1981)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Reds</strong> (1981)

(In French, On TV, December 2018) I’m starting to be old enough to realize how complex history can be, and how many little-known side stories, tangents and footnotes it contains. Now, thanks to Warren Beatty’s Reds, I know a little bit more about the American involvement in the Bolchevik Revolution of November 1917 and its aftermath. Beatty here produces, writes, directs and plays in a movie about American journalist John Reed, who witnessed those events first-hand, sent news reports and ended up writing a book about it. In addition to Reed’s reporting, the film does spend quite a bit of time chronicling his complex relationship with socialite Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton). If it feels like a history lesson, then this is an impression that the film actively courts—by including documentary footage of “witnesses” talking about Reed, Reds blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and further bolsters the epic scale of the result. The other thing that hits hard is the film’s mind-numbing 194 minutes, far too long even for the kind of massive world-changing epic that Reds has in mind. Still, if you can schedule your life around the movie, it’s quite an interesting history lesson that it has in mind—a corner of American history during which the country may have been tempted to back off from savage capitalism, and a milestone of Russian history seldom depicted sympathetically in American movies. It’s easy to imagine parallel realities emerging from America embracing at least some degree of socialism, as this film dramatizes the elements in play in the late 1910s. Now that Beatty has essentially retired (or at least retreated back in a safe corner), it’s easier to evaluate how daring much of his pre-1990s filmography could be, and with Reds he controlled the project from beginning to end. The result is a fiercely intelligent, provocative, unusual piece of work that may overstay its welcome, but nonetheless illuminates a pocket of history that deserves to be told.

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