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Reds: 25th Anniversary Edition

When Warren Beatty's Reds (1981) lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Chariots of Fire, it didn't merely mark the arrival of British films as awards-season contenders ("The British are coming!" Chariots screenwriter Colin Welland quipped during the acceptance speech), but also the end of the New Hollywood. Some film historians would mark the date a year or two earlier, when Michael Cimino's over-long, over-budget Heaven's Gate (1980) bankrupted United Artists, ensuring that no single studio would again allow a director to go on location with a film crew and a blank check. Reds, then, can be seen as the last of its kind — a lavish, highly detailed, over-budget, epic-length historical drama shot in multiple countries for millions of dollars, and yet a singular artistic vision. And if Warren Beatty brought the New Hollywood era to a close, then at least he also can say he was there when it began, producing the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. But while Beatty's output in the 1970s was decidedly more lightweight (Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait), the New Hollywood generation always sought Oscar sanctification — something Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) had achieved. Like Cimino's work, Beatty's investment in Reds was deeply personal, particularly in his political sympathies toward American journalist John Reed, who covered the U.S. labor movement in the days leading up to World War I and then found himself a witness to history during the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. Reds earned 12 Oscar nominations, winning three, and losing the Best Picture statuette that was so widely expected that Beatty only gave a partial speech while accepting for Best Director. He would not return to the screen for several years, and it's notable that two of the year's other Best Picture contenders — Chariots of Fire and Raiders of the Lost Ark — signaled the industry's new directions far more than Reds, which in retrospect seems to be a fond look back at a decade when writers and directors controlled Hollywood's film output far more than producers and focus groups.

Harvard-educated John Reed's modest origins began in Portland, Oregon, where he grew up and occasionally returns while working in New York as a newspaper and magazine journalist. Upon one return visit, Reed (Beatty) meets local artist Louise Trullinger (Diane Keaton), a married woman with a passionate interest in progressive ideals. She soon falls for plain-spoken "Jack," who suggests that she relocate with him to Greenwich Village, the center of American bohemianism and dissent in the early 20th century. She agrees, reassuming her maiden name Bryant, although she's determined to go as her own person and not as his girlfriend or wife. Once in New York, the pair socialize with the most prominent American leftists, radicals, and artists of the day, including Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), and playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson). America's potential entry into World War I dominates most political discussions, although Jack spends a good deal of time covering the labor movement, convinced that war can be averted if workers around the world choose to unite. Jack and Louise's relationship suffers as she struggles to find her own career and identity, and she even has a brief affair with O'Neill before agreeing to marry Jack. But as America's entry in the war seems all but assured by 1917, Jack is fascinated by the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia and the potential Bolshevik takeover of the government, which would establish the world's first communist nation. He and Louise make the dangerous trip to Russia, where they report on the activities of revolutionary architects Lenin and Trotsky. It's also where Jack finds himself drawn into speaking at a labor rally on behalf of American workers, thereby crossing the line from reporter to activist, and inserting himself not just into a news event, but into history.

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The idealistic goals of labor organizers in the early 20th century seem to have little place in today's post-industrialist U.S. economy, in part because of the decline of manufacturing and skilled labor, the rise of the service sector, and the public ownership of major corporations — the "labor movement" simply doesn't have the impact that it once did, and even then, many communist sympathizers believed that a Soviet-style government would be entirely unworkable in the United States. Reds concerns itself with these lost ideals — both with the American government's pursuit of left-wing "seditionists" and with the nascent Soviet government's suppression of dissent — making it less a didactic work of political commentary and instead a glimpse into the collaborations and conflicts that occurred at the foundation of the American Left. It's notable how much after-dinner discussion in the film remains relevant to this day, including the debate over backing a presidential candidate who lacks anti-war credentials, Emma Goldman's disbursement of birth-control literature to poor women, and the noblesse oblige of educated liberals who seek to defend the most vulnerable members of society. It's here where Reds has its greatest historical impact, while also underscoring John Reed's essential social myopia as he consistently refers to "workers" in the singular with a common set of needs while battling the inevitable infighting within his own Socialist party. As Louise notes, he did more for workers' rights with his writing than with his organizational activities, and as the communist experiment in Russia seems doomed to failure even before it gets underway, Reds becomes a story that isn't about a singular mass of people, but just two — Jack and Louise — who find that their love for each other sustains them more than art, writing, or political ambition. At one point, Emma scolds Jack, telling him "You're a journalist. When you're a revolutionary, we'll discuss priorities." It is this struggle, between individual needs and social ideals, that makes Reds Warren Beatty's best film, and his most personal as well.

Paramount's "25th Anniversary Edition" release of Reds splits the film across two discs with a break at the theatrical intermission — the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) does justice to Vittorio Storaro's luminous cinematography, while audio is available in the original mono (DD 2.0) or a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The theatrical trailer can be found on Disc One, while Disc Two includes "Witness to Reds," a 67-min. multi-part documentary by Laurent Bouzereau featuring comments from Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Vittorio Storaro, Paul Sorvino, and several more cast and crew members (Diane Keaton, however, is conspicuously absent). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard sleeve.
—Robert Wederquist

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