Even with the commercial success of his directorial debut, Heaven Can Wait, a few years earlier, the fact that Warren Beatty managed to get a major studio like Paramount—then owned by Gulf + Western—to finance a three-hour-plus picture about the founder of the American Communist Party during the height of the Cold War is pretty astounding. But Beatty's idea had been simmering for several years already; he'd gradually been filming testimonials with those who knew John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant—among them everyone from Henry Miller to Hamilton Fish—and partnering on the script with British leftist playwright Trevor Griffiths. Reds emerged in 1981 with multiple Oscar nominations as a bona-fide epic hit; what really makes it work, fully evident as the film at long last gets a DVD release, is that it is every bit about the politics of the heart as it is about revolution.
Diane Keaton is radiant as Bryant, the feminist journo who is at first both captivated by Beatty's charming, outspoken Reed and irritated at how quickly and completely she falls for him. The two actors expertly navigate the script's loving yet tempestuous relationship, which meets its share of ups and downs—Reed's relentless political pursuits at one point drive Bryant into the arms of Eugene O'Neill, played with a cool cynicism by Jack Nicholson—well before they even make it to Moscow at the height of the Bolshevik uprising. Seeing the people's revolution firsthand not only brings them closer together than ever before, but it also seals their fates at home and abroad: the capitalist war machine at home condemns them and their fellow activists including Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, rock-solid in her Oscar winning role), while the Soviet leadership turns out not to be everything they'd imagined.
Presented in its theatrical format with an intermission between acts, the two-disc Reds set arrives looking and sounding tremendous, as relevant as ever to the current political discourse, and including a pretty good documentary considering Beatty states outright he isn't into DVD extras. (“Witness to Reds” also features Nicholson, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, composer Stephen Sondheim and more; it's not a commentary track, but it'll do!) A true American classic.
Also recommended this week: Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Two; Author! Author!; Billy Wilder Speaks; The Cars Unlocked: The Live Performances; The Dam Busters.