Sunday 10 September 2017

1,001 Films: "Reds" (1981)

Even at the moment of its release - with the Reagan administration settling in, and Communist Russia being set up as the bad guy all over again - Reds was going against the cultural grain some. Producer-director-writer-star Warren Beatty and co-scenarist Trevor Griffiths here managed to persuade Paramount, shortly to become primary sponsors of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, to back a three-and-a-half-hour biopic of the (generally underknown) lefty journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant, opening in the 1910s, when the latter was married to a dependable, well-regarded Portland dentist, then following the pair as they ran off for a series of adventures - romantic, sexual and political - in Paris, Russia and New York. "Marriage was not important in Greenwich Village," asserts one of the film's scenesetters, which I think counts as cocking a snook at the family values being touted elsewhere in the America of the 1980s - and underlines how central the Beatty legend was to the project.

At its best, Reds succeeds in bringing about an unusual synthesis of historical drama and screwball comedy. Upon first arrival in Revolutionary Russia, our estranged lovers are confronted first by the sight of soldiers having limbs amputated, and then, back at their lodgings, by the one single bed they have to share between the two of them, establishing Reed (Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton) as fellow travellers of Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night. The film is as interested in their union as it is in the unions; there was a reason Beatty recruited Annie Hall to play alongside him, and why his next engagement with politics would be 1998's outwardly comic Bulworth. Reds nevertheless establishes its utilitarian credentials by cutting away from the dramatised action to a chorus of what the credits describe as "witnesses": those real-life individuals who knew the protagonists, their testimony hereby preserved on celluloid for the ages. The sensation is of a film displaying its footnotes alongside the main text, and wearing its heart next to the red star on its sleeve.

Although perhaps not as much as the typical Redford project (The Way We Were, say), Reds is unarguably romanticised in its view of bloody historical events, shot by Vittorio Storaro as a less chocolate-boxy version of a Lean epic, with an emphasis on figures who talk and think rather than swoon, and with "The Internationale" assuming the place of a Maurice Jarre score. A fair amount of capital has been expended upon it, and the disillusion that sets into the characters during the second half is, perhaps inevitably, less intoxicating than the stirring passions of the first. The film is at least socialist in the sense of a true collaboration, and the workers - just about - keep the flag aloft; characters who could have made for dim, dusty, distant figures - mere observers, at that - instead fizz and come alive. Beatty and Keaton - their faces endlessly animated, as though being struck by a thousand ideas simultaneously - share a very particular chemistry, one composed of equal parts mind and body.

On their first date, this Reed and Bryant keep themselves up all night with talk of the revolution to come; on their second, she lures him away from a stuffy dinner party with the line "I'd like to see you with your pants off, Mr. Reed." From here on out, we watch a couple attempting to live up to their own high ideas and standards, perpetually testing their own internal rhetoric against that of everybody else around them. As is usually the case in radical politics, it's the man who tacks to a harder line, marching towards dogmatism, while the woman looks on, aghast, and is obliged to suffer the consequences. As the revolutionary movement loses momentum, Reds becomes a study of individuals falling out of synch - in their language, their movements, their heartbeats, and then with the rest of the world: Reed finds his words appropriated by jihadists, a startlingly modern development that suggests history - or at least American interventionalist do-goodery - keeps finding ways to repeat itself.

Behind the leads, we get an intriguingly chilly and creepy turn from Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill (Bryant sure knew how to pick 'em); it may, too, be the only film in existence in which Emma Goldman plays Cupid, and is rewarded in turn with all the best lines. (Reed to Maureen Stapleton's Goldman: "It's late, I'll walk you home." Goldman to Reed: "Why? I'm not going to hurt anybody.") You wouldn't have to ponder too long to arrive at the conclusion America has entered into political retrograde over the three decades since the film's release: today, after the rise of the Tea Parties and Trump, with "Communist" having become, in public and political discourse, a more potent slur than that other C-word, and with the Jack Reed most familiar to Americans being the cop played by doughty character actor Brian Dennehy in a series of procedural TV movies, you probably couldn't get a meeting to raise even the possibility of getting a film like this made.

Reds is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.

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