Classic 80s Movie: “Reds”

December 21st, 2013 by

Today’s Classic 80s Movie guest post comes from Paul Graunke.

Movie Title:  Reds

Year:  1981 (nominated for Best Picture)

Writer: Warren Beatty, Trevor Griffith (Oscar nominated)

Lead Actors: Warren Beatty (Oscar nominated), Diane Keaton (Oscar nominated), Jack Nicholson (Oscar nominated), Maureen Stapleton (Oscar winner), Edward Herrmann

Director: Warren Beatty (Oscar winner)

Plot Summary: The story of the radical journalist Jack Reed, the only American to be buried in the Kremlin.

Why I Think This Is a Classic 80s Movies:  It’s a landmark film, the last American movie released with an intermission – a two reeler.  It’s the kind of big-budget film they don’t make anymore:  about unpopular subjects, the radical left in the US during and after World War I, the Russian revolution; about a protagonist an audience is not likely to root for; and it dares to engage a lot of  ideas.

That it got made is a tribute to Warren Beatty’s passion for the subject, his artistic vision – and his considerable ability to charm. He persuaded the uber-capitalist owner of Paramount at the time, Charles Bludhorn, to finance a movie that bites the hand of the economic system that feeds it.

“Reds” paints a broad canvas of people, places, events, and ideas:  class struggle, world war, revolution, conflicts between artists and ideologues, the individual and the collective, friends and lovers. Framing the canvas is the volatile relationship between radical journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty) and the radical writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) as they are swept up in the tumult of war and revolution.

The movie starts in 1915 when they meet in Portland, Oregon.  After a one night affair,  Jack invites Louise to forsake her pedestrian dentist husband and come with him New York.

LOUISE:  What as?  What as?  Your girlfriend, your mistress, your paramour, your concubine?

Jack responds with a flippant response; the question dangles over the story, unanswered.  The rest of the film is the struggle for the two characters to answer the question, to define workable relationship.  The question Louise asks Jack is the central dramatic question of the plot.

Five year later, the dramatic question is answered in a Moscow hospital as Reed is dying of typhus:

(Spoiler Alert!)

JACK:  Want to come to New York with me?  I got a taxi waiting.
LOUISE:  I wouldn’t mind.
JACK: What as?
LOUISE: What as?
JACK: What as?
LOUISE: Gee I don’t know.  Comrades?
JACK: Comrades.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie:  The montage of the Bolshevik Revolution that climaxes the 1st reel.  In terms of the plot, it is the fateful moment when Reed irrevocably crosses the threshold from merely reporting the revolution to becoming an active participant.

And who but Warren Beatty could contrive to use the music that underscores the montage, “The Internationale”, an anthem about class warfare (“Arise, the workers of all nations!”) as a love song for the reconciliation of estranged lovers?

My Favorite Dialogue in the Movie:

EUGENE:  Why aren’t you in Chicago with Jack?
LOUISE: Why should I be? He has things, I have mine.
EUGENE:  What are they?
LOUISE: What?
EUGENE: The things you have that are yours? What are they?
LOUISE: My work, for one.
EUGENE: He’s a real mean son of a bitch, isn’t he?
LOUISE:  What do you mean?
EUGENE: Leaving you alone with your work.
LOUISE: You think I mind?
EUGENE: You should. It’s the one thing we mustn’t be left alone with.
LOUISE:  You may feel that way. I don’t.
EUGENE:  Good. Don’t let those village radicals keep you from being what you should be.
LOUISE: What do you think I should be?
EUGENE:  The center of attention.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie:  This is not a high concept movie with a simple logline. It is a complicated movie about complicated people with high ideals.  Beatty considered Reed’s radical convictions central to the story.  Consequently, a lot of dialogue is expended arguing over leftist ideology.  As attention spans have only contracted in the last 40 years, modern viewers are likely to be even more quickly bored than were audiences in 1981.

But I think the polemics function to dramatize Reed’s character flaw, the perils of extremist convictions.  It is a flaw that causes him (and likeminded true believers) to strain at gnats of doctrinal minutiae while swallowing whole diseased and defective camels of ideology.  The movie does not give Reed a free pass because of his passion for social and economic justice. And one clever tactic in the story is the choice of characters to counterbalance and critique Reed’s ideas and actions.  Reed’s best critics are not his worst enemies – but his best friends and sympathetic allies.

The movie is an American version of classic Greek tragedy:  with the best of intentions, Reed chooses the wrong side of the historical dialectic and ends up a propaganda pawn of the Soviet regime.

And it is a tragedy with an American version of the Greek chorus. The movie is intercut with memories of “Witnesses”, real people who knew the real John Reed and the real Louise Bryant, who were eye witnesses to what really happened.  The Witnesses not only comment on the action, they carry the heavy water of exposition.  Consequently, it doesn’t have to be awkwardly and obviously shoehorned into dialogue. The screen doesn’t have to be cluttered with 3 and 4 line title cards. (In fact, there are no titles to even identify the “Witnesses”.)

The use of the Witnesses is an artistic masterstroke that elevates the movie above most other historical dramas.

Thanks, Paul! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

Tomorrow: Another Classic 80s Movie!

3 thoughts on “Classic 80s Movie: “Reds”

  1. […] Why I Think This Is a Classic 80s Movies: It’s a landmark film, the last American movie released with an intermission – a two reeler. It’s the kind of big-budget film they don’t …read more […]

  2. One of my favorites–I marvel and the depth and the ambitiousness of it all. Somehow, it all works on so many levels and doesn’t lose its soul in all the spectacle. A tour de force that no one expected from Beatty.

  3. The Witnesses have always stayed with me. Something unique in my viewing at the time I saw it (age 17). I stayed up late into the night just to finish it.

    People don’t give Beatty enough credit.

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