Warren Beatty’s Red s is a courageous and uncompromising attempt to meld a high-level socio-political drama of ideas with an intense love story, but it is ultimately too ponderous.
More than just the story of American journalist-activist John Reed’s stormy romantic career with writer Louise Bryant, a kinetic affair backdropped by pre-World War I radicalism and the Russian Revolution, the film is also, to its eventual detriment, structured as a Marxist history lesson.
First half of the film, though it takes an inordinant amount of time and detail to do it, does an intelligent job of setting both the political and emotional scene. Beginning in 1915, Reed (Beatty) is introduced as an idealistic reporter of decidedly radical bent who meets Portland writer Bryant (Diane Keaton) and persuades her to join him in New York within a tight-knit radical intellectual salon that includes the likes of playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and radical editor Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann).
Their on-again, off-again affair – which challenges their respective claims of emotional liberation – survives Keaton’s brief fling with Nicholson and they marry.
But Beatty’s inability to resist the growing socialist bandwagon strains them yet again and Keaton ships off to cover the French battlefront and begin life afresh. En route to cover the upcoming conflagration in Russia, Beatty persuades her to join him – in professional, not emotional status – and in Petrograd, the revolutionary fervor rekindles their romantic energies as well.
Red s bites off more than an audience can comfortably chew. Constant conflicts between politics and art, love and social conscience, individuals versus masses, pragmatism against idealism, take the form of intense and eventually exhausting arguments that dominate the script by Beatty and British playwright Trevor Griffiths.
As director, Beatty has harnessed considerable intensity into individual confrontations but curiously fails to give the film an overall emotional progression.
1981: Best Director, Supp. Actress (Maureen Stapleton), Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Warren Beatty), Actress (Diane Keaton), Supp. Actor (Jack Nicholson), Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direction, Editing, Sound