Thursday will mark the 86th anniversary of John Reed's death, and today Paramount released Warren Beatty's romantic epic about Reed, Reds, for the first time on DVD in honor of the film's 25th anniversary.
I will not pretend that Reds is a Great Film, much as it wants to be, nor will I proclaim it a brilliant work of political popular art. But I love watching it, because part of what it does is what the best romantic epics do -- it presents us with a world that seems like a wonderful place to live and characters who are tremendously passionate, idealistic, and much larger than any life I, at least, know. It makes art and politics seem like things worth living for. It is, in many ways, then, a movie designed to appeal to adolescents. I adored it when I was 16. After watching Reds then I went out and found books about Reed, about Emma Goldman, about Eugene O'Neill (whose birthday, by the way, was yesterday), about socialism and Bolshevism and all the wonderful and terrifying events surrounding World War I and the Russian Revolution.
Among my favorite parts of the movie now are parts that confused me when I was a teenager: the "witnesses" -- the actual people, discovered by Beatty and his research crew, who knew Reed and Louise Bryant, some of them famous (Henry Miller, Rebecca West), some of them not. Their testimonies are interwoven throughout the movie, providing contradictory views, hazy memories, and personal viewpoints that remind the viewer not to take the events portrayed by the film as objective history, but rather as one narrative among many. (Indeed, though sometimes very accurate to recorded fact, the film also includes plenty of moments that are epic but not at all historical.)
Aside from the witnesses, the storytelling is conventional and familiar, but this isn't much of a fault, because some of the acting is tremendous, particularly some of the smaller roles -- Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman is so forceful I've hardly been able to imagine Goldman in any other way, and for one reason or another Gene Hackman's bit part as Pete van Wherry has remained among my favorites of his roles.
Publicists may try to sell more copies of the movie by trumpeting its relevance to our current time of unbridled capitalism and wars to spread democracy, and while there are certainly some good speeches against war and money in the film, it's primarily the story of two people who loved each other but couldn't quite ever get that love to work for very long, because the world kept calling them away from themselves. They seem to have gotten caught up in world events as much out of luck as planning, and then found themselves consumed and distracted by more passions than they knew what to do with, which led to more pain than they probably deserved, and the kind of dramatic life that is, on reflection, more satisfying to watch than to live.