Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 22, 2021)
Come Oscar night 1982, we got a case of What Was, What Should Have Been, and What Most Thought Would Be. In regard to “What Was”, Chariots of Fire took home the prize as Best Picture.
As for “What Should Have Been”, I thought – and still believe – that Raiders of the Lost Ark was the best flick of the year and it most deserved the prize.
Then we come to What Most Thought Would Be: a Best Picture victory for Reds. The movie received good reviews and had the kind of epic Oscar feel that the Academy so often likes.
When Warren Beatty took home the Best Director trophy, a Best Picture win for Reds seemed even more likely, but it wasn’t to be. While I felt Raiders was the best of the year’s bunch, I definitely preferred Reds to the lackluster Chariots.
Reds starts from reminiscences from “witnesses” who knew the movie’s main characters, Jack Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). From there we flash back to Portland Oregon circa 1915 to meet Diane and her dentist husband Paul Trullinger (Nicolas Coster). She supports the arts but he frowns upon her indulgences.
Louise clearly moons over rebellious journalist Jack. She pursues an interview with them and they spend a night during which he espouses his left-wing viewpoints, mostly related to potential American involvement in World War I.
As a result, the pair launch a relationship that causes Louise to leave Paul and move to New York with Jack so she can pursue her work as a writer. She ends up with him in Greenwich Village where she gets caught up in the progressive movement with Jack and others such as Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), Floyd Dell (Max Wright), Bill Haywood (Dolph Sweet) and Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson).
However, Louise resents that no one takes her seriously and she ends up regarded as little more than Jack’s babe. Eventually this comes to a head, and after they shift bases to Provincetown, she becomes better able to create useful work.
Louise also finds a distraction during all of Jack’s many trips away from home, and she gets involved in an affair with O’Neill though she remains focused on Jack. This love triangle presents lasting repercussions even after Jack and Louise marry.
Reds follows their relationship as well as their political proclivities, an area that leads them to Russia for the revolution. This affects them strongly and makes them even more involved in radical issues back in the US.
I seem to recall that I really liked Reds back in 1981, but I tend to discount some of my teenage opinions due to pretension. I wanted to dig movies beyond those normally endorsed by my peer group, so if something seemed to be “sophisticated” and “important”, that was good enough for me.
Reds fit the bill in both categories, so it became more likely that I’d endorse it more because of my desires to be “adult” than on its own merits.
40 years later, I’m about as adult as I’ll ever get, and I’d like to think that I’ve abandoned most of my pretensions. Seen in that light, I find that Reds offers a generally successful historical effort but not one that quite lives up to its ambitions.
And what were those ambitions? To be a grand epic on a par with legendary flicks such as Dr. Zhivago.
I find that film to offer the most apt point of comparison since both it and Reds cover related territory. Of course, Reds takes the Russian Revolution as a more inspirational event while Zhivago goes in the opposite direction, but the pair share more than a few common components and themes.
Both go through their subjects with a focus on human relationships, and that’s where Reds shines. Beatty approaches his lead characters and their lives in an understated manner that works well. Throughout the film, he tells his tale in a clear manner that lacks the usual sentimentality.
Indeed, Reds offers a very good depiction of the devotion to each other between Jack and Louise. This feels earned, not gratuitous, and comes across in an unsentimental manner that makes it more effective.
The movie doesn’t pour on the gooey love, so it keeps things calm and unemotional as would befit intellectuals like these. Beatty couldn’t quite resist a music swell during one particular scene, but given his restraint the rest of the time, I can forgive that move.
Reds blends the emotional side with the historical and creates a nice look at the events. No, we don’t get a full retelling of the Russian Revolution, but we learn more than enough as a backdrop.
The main characters remain the focus, and that helps develop the historical elements in a vivid way. For feature films, I usually think they tell history best when viewed through the eyes of different people, so I like the way Reds moves along that side of things.
I must admit I’m not particularly wild about the “witnesses”, though, as I don’t think the movie needs that sort of gimmick. Those participants help give us some insights into Reed and Bryant, but they distract more than they add.
I also think the film runs a little too long. It tends to become a bit redundant as it examines the various relationships and threatens to lose the viewer, especially during the first half.
Sometimes it feels like the length exists to pad the flick to “epic” scope but doesn’t come for organic storytelling reasons. It does improve its pace once it gets to Russia, though, so the second half proceeds more smoothly.
In any case, Reds has more than enough to overcome the minor weaknesses, especially because we hear less and less from the “witnesses” as the movie progresses. It boasts an absolutely stellar cast and gives us an interesting history of a somewhat forgotten aspect of American history. This is a quality movie that remains solid after 40 years.