Back in the early ’80s, at the height of right-wing Reaganite politics, to pitch a Hollywood major with a proposal for a vast megabuck epic about a bunch of ‘traitorous’ American Commies must have taken more than the average allotment of chutzpah. But then Warren Beatty has never lacked for audacity – or determination. The fact that Reds not only got made, but picked up a stack of Academy Award nominations and three Oscars (including one for Beatty as Best Director) can be credited to the mule-headed persistence of one of Tinseltown’s least conventional leading men.
For Reds is Beatty’s film, no contest. Beatty directed, starred, co-scripted, co-produced and, most importantly, fought tirelessly for his pet project, in the face of overwhelming hostility and contempt, for the best part of 10 years. Okay, he assembled an army of peaking talent around him – Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Maureen Stapleton in the cast, Vittorio Storaro as DoP, Stephen Sondheim to compose the score, Brit left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths as co-writer, the great Dede Allen as editor – but top credit goes to Beatty and the suave bastard deserves it.
Reds is, in effect, the leftist riposte to Doctor Zhivago in both style and scale. Both counterpoint a turbulent love affair with the earth-shaking upheavals of the Russian Revolution, but where the apolitical Lean treats the Revolution as simply an annoying interruption to his lovers’ happiness, Beatty is fascinated by the political and social issues and weaves them closely into the action. His lead pair are two American left-wing political journalists: John Reed, author of the classic account of the October Uprising, Ten Days That Shook the World, and his lover Louise Bryant. They and their friends endlessly debate, deride, split and denounce – and now and then it all gets a bit Life Of Brian. (“Are you the Judean People’s Front?” “Fuck off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”)
But once we get to Russia the whole irresistible romantic-utopian sweep of the movie kicks in, and as the crowds surge through the streets of Moscow, Reed and Bryant embrace and the Internationale swells on the soundtrack, even Telegraph readers may feel a lump in the throat. Beatty and Keaton (lovers in real life) give career-best performances and Jack Nicholson, as ever, steals all his scenes as alcoholic playwright Eugene O’Neill. The use of ‘witnesses’ – oldies like Dora Russell, Henry Miller, Rebecca West, who actually knew these people – adds a whole other dimension and just as a sheer visual spectacle the film’s often breathtaking.