Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition

Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition (1981)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton
Extras: DVD Trailer, "Witness To Reds" Featurette

Chronicling the final five years of American socialist/journalist John Reed, "Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition" presents an ambitious look at the professional and personal life of the author behind "Ten Days That Shook the World" (detailing his first-hand account of the Russian Revolution). An epic throwback that boasts the scope and melodramatic contrivances of sweeping historical docudramas, "Reds" successfully manages to juggle a heartbreaking love story with the political unrest that occurred in the early 20th century. Warren Beatty pulls out all the stops for his second stab at writing and directing (the first film being the dramatically different crowd-pleaser "Heaven Can Wait") and proves that he's up to the daunting task of recreating the turbulent social and political environment of the time.

John Reed (Warren Beatty) is a liberal journalist who catches the eye of Louise Bryant (a captivating Diane Keaton), a fellow journalist with similar ideals. Soon, a whirlwind romance between the two takes flight and what follows are years of breakups and reconciliations, all against the backdrop of domestic and international upheaval. John and Louise move from place to place, flirt with poetry and playwriting and Louise has a not-so-secret affair with Eugene O'Neil (played by a relatively subdued Jack Nicholson). As time passes, John and Louise enjoy a brief moment of marital bliss before honesty issues threaten their relationship. Next thing you know, they go their separate ways, joining up years later in Russia to work together. With a strictly professional relationship blooming, their romance and passion is soon reignited.

Amidst the excitement of the Russian Revolution, John inadvertently becomes a bold voice against the capitalistic regime and eventually leaves the country with enough notes to complete his first novel. Back on American soil, John continues his ascension as a political conduit of Communist ideology, much to the chagrin of Louise, who begins feeling neglected and lost in the shuffle. In order to get recognition for his Communist Labor Party of America, John decides to head back to Moscow. This turns out to be a bad idea, since John is prevented from leaving the country and, when he attempts to escape, he's captured and imprisoned in Finland. This prompts Louise on a quest to find John and bring him back; leading her on a long, arduous journey through harsh sea-storms, dense forests and the frozen tundra. To give away anymore would deprive the film of its dramatic tension and the heartbreaking resolve of its two lead characters. Let's just say that there are many frustrating moments that involve missed connections and communications, where it seems the whole world is against these two ever finding each other again.

"Reds" is a classy, well-made, well-acted film that belies its commercial pedigree with enough dividing ideas that it could have easily slipped into a bloated ego-stroke. To Beatty's credit, he deftly manages to avoid these pitfalls by focusing on the intimacy between John and Louise, while paying equal attention to the political aspects of the film. Filled with compelling themes of art vs. politics and public vs. private life, "Reds" certainly has enough ideas to chew on and it's a testament to Beatty's filmmaking smarts that he doesn't let the daunting running time (the film clocks in at 195 minutes) devolve into tedious preaching. Far from being "sleek," "Reds" nonetheless manages to roll by at a steady pace, always providing a captivating cinematic experience. Beatty has crafted a daring film that challenges viewers to examine their own political ideals, dripping with a resonance that is even more relevant in today's day and age.

The acting by all is exceptional. Beatty gives a humanizing performance that makes us sympathize with his convictions, while Diane Keaton provides the bulk of the dramatic heft, straying from her usual tics and stutters that have plagued her work with Woody Allen. The always watchable Jack Nicholson also gives a low-key performance, avoiding the histrionics of his latter film work. Also, keep an eye out for numerous appearances of familiar faces like Gene Hackman, Paul Sorvino, Edward Herrmann and Maureen Stapleton (who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar). The real star though is Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who composes gorgeous, stunning shots of landscapes and shadow-soaked interiors with equal beauty. The look of the film is captivating and Beatty's symbolic handling of the mise-en-scene only enhances the depth of these aesthetics.

This isn't to say that the film doesn't have its fair share of weaknesses though. It never quite earns the masterpiece label that critics have bestowed upon it (after release, it garnered twelve Academy Award nominations, winning three for Best Director, Supporting Actress and Cinematographer). For one thing, there were moments that left me cold, which seems to be more of a problem with the source material than with the actual film itself. John and Louise, while obviously in love with each other, nevertheless always seemed at odds. The cycle of them getting together and then breaking up, then getting together again, begins to wear us down to the point of apathy. Also, I found the Louise/Eugene O'Neil affair to be borderline inconsequential. While it obviously plays a big role in the development of trust (or lack thereof) between John and Louise, it nonetheless comes off as trite and overlong. Another misfire is the numerous scenes involving John's klutzy behavior. While most are funny, they aren't consistent with the rest of the film and one sequence (depicting John's harried attempts at cooking a meal), seem more at place in an episode of "I Love Lucy." Despite these nitpicking observations, "Reds" is an overall good, solid film that succeeds more often than not.

Paramount Home Entertainment presents "Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition" in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is exceptional, highlighting the exquisite photography of Vittorio Storaro. The varied locations are represented in all their visual glory with great detail and clarity. The sepia-toned color of the film conjures a great nostalgic feeling and it works well with the overabundance of shadows. Much of the film is shot in the darkness, with figures emerging out from the shadows and it's nice to report that the black levels are strong and deep. The level of depth to the images is amazing, although I did notice a few instances of aliasing, but nothing too detrimental. Also, there were times when halos popped up around characters, but these edge enhancement problems weren't significant. Overall I'm impressed with this transfer. Beautifully done.

Sound is provided by a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix and English and French Mono tracks. The 5.1 track isn't too overpowering, in fact, it could have been more aggressive. Most of the dialogue is center channel specific, with minimal use of directional and atmospheric effects. The mix seemed to be fairly conservative, with the various crowd scenes coming off a bit flat and murky. The only time the mix came to life was when the soundtrack music kicked in (everything from ragtime to Russian anthems), but even then it wasn't as strong as I was hoping for. Perfectly suitable, but I'm not blown away. Dialogue was clear, with no instances of hiss or distortion. Subtitles are offered in English.

"Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition" comes in a 2-Disc set, with the Feature concluding on Disc 2 (there is an "Intermission" break at the end of Disc 1). For Extras, Disc 1 has a "Reds" DVD Trailer.

Disc 2 includes a fairly comprehensive Featurette entitled "Witness To Reds" (67 mins.) which is broken up into seven different sections that can be played separately or all at once. In order, they are "The Rising," "Comrades," Testimonials," "The March," "Revolution-Part 1," "Revolution-Part 2" and "Propaganda." This is a fascinating look at all aspects of the movie, from Beatty's political activism (which prompted his interest into Reed's life); to his tiring directing style (he likes to do a lot of takes). This Featurette is especially notable since Beatty takes an active role in the interviews, something he hasn't done for his other DVD releases. With his involvement, he's able to round up a wide variety of participants, including Jack Nicholson, Barry Diller (the former Paramount Chief who greenlit the film), Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Edward Herrmann and Paul Sorvino, just to name a few. We get to learn about Nicholson's apprehension to do the film, fearing that he didn't look anything like Eugene O'Neil and Maureen Stapleton's claustrophobia, which presented transportation problems. It also becomes clear that this story was truly a labor of love for Beatty, since he used his box office clout to secure funding for the film, even though it was a non-commercial endeavor (and could be potentially career-ending). The major casting choices are talked about, as are the testimonials by the wide variety of "Witnesses" that provide the film with exposition and narration. Certainly one of the most entertaining aspects of the film, Beatty shares some wonderful anecdotes about his experiences with the men and women who knew John Reed and Louise Bryant. The photography is also mentioned, with Beatty and Storaro clashing over camera movement (Storaro wanted the camera to move, Beatty wanted it to be static) and Storaro explains why he felt certain scenes needed to be shot in the shadows. The logistical nightmare of the production, coupled with the non-commercial ideology that Beatty was exploring, certainly highlights the director's passion for the project and the material. This "Witness To Reds" Featurette proves to be an entertaining and informative look at the behind-the-scenes development of the film and the aftermath of its success.

Finally arriving on DVD, "Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition" is just as thought provoking today as it was upon its initial release. Part drama, part romance and part historical document, "Reds" covers all ground during its long running time. While ambitious in scope, the film never becomes boring, mainly due to director Warren Beatty's expert handling of intimate moments, which are equally as well-shot as the grandiose set pieces. A sweeping epic that boasts amazing performances from all involved, "Reds" is a strong, solid film that has held up admirably well. This comes highly recommended.