Combustible Celluloid
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With: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton, Edward Herrmann, Gene Hackman, Jerzy Kosinski, George Plimpton, Paul Sorvino
Written by: Warren Beatty, Trevor Griffiths
Directed by: Warren Beatty
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 195
Date: 12/03/1981

Reds (1981)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Commie Dearest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Warren Beatty collected a Best Director Oscar for this epic film that is actually more complicated than it seems. Beatty portrays the radical American journalist John Reed (1887-1920), who realizes that communism may be the answer to help out American labor, and winds up personally involved in the Russian Revolution. At the same time, he falls for writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton -- Beatty's lover at the time), but can't seem to balance his duty and his love. The playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) expresses his love for Louise as well, and she considers succumbing to his snaky charms.

The first half deals more with the politics, the arguments and the establishing of the characters, while the second half is a more Dr. Zhivago-like old-fashioned romantic adventure; Reed tries to get out of Russia and back to his true love.

But the key to the film is the many talking head interviews that appear between scenes, real-life figures ranging from Henry Miller to friends of John and Louise's. These interviewees remember the events in and around the film, but many interviewees contradict one another, or remember details differently than the film presents them, or refuse to remember at all. They relieve the film of its duty to be a "true" representation of these events, and allow it to be what it actually is, an epic, a romance, an adventure, a story of ideals, perhaps wrong-headed, or perhaps visionary.

The effect is such that, even though the characters passionately advocate communism, the film was successfully released during the conservative Reagan era. Viewed today, it's not so effortlessly impressive, but it's still an uncommonly intelligent and quite entertaining film.

Paramount has released this film on a two-disc DVD set, and it's the first time it has been widely available in years. (Beatty apparently refused to let the film be cut for television showings.) The film is split over two DVDs (it breaks at the intermission) and Beatty appears for lots of talking head interviews about the history of the film.

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