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ROWING LIFEBOATS

John Reed remains the most vivid first-hand journalist America has thus far produced. Not even Hemingway coming close, Reed reported out of passion—he became his subject matter, his intensity and writer’s fever often overpowering, infectious. His métier—on display in Ten Days That Shook The World, the pieces “Insurgent Mexico,” “The Colorado War” and “The War in Eastern Europe”—was witnessing the immediacy of history and transferring it into an undeviating enthusiasm. Once hooked, a reader can understand why he died three days before his thirty-third birthday—he virtually wrote himself to death. These attributes are also what helped make him in later years less an example of the mastery of news reporting and more the object of ignorant scorn. If easy to attack him for being committed to the politics that resulted from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as if there weren’t just causes, it’s too easy to use him as a symbol of a lack of foresight in not seeing all that would go wrong. Reed is, and remains, a fit movie subject. To a degree, Warren Beatty does him the justice intended: Reds starts out very nicely—a composite landscape of free-thinkers against the rising fear of Capitalist goonheads, how the divide between the rich and everyone was as huge then as it is today. Having wanted to make a movie about Reed for years, Beatty is the right actor to play him—both being handsome, unabashed progressives and lovers of women. And throughout Reds he’s performing as well as he ever has, even in those shouting matches with Diane Keaton as Reed’s wife Louise Bryant. Yet right from the start, the picture can’t move beyond what we know and we knew it in 1981 when Reds was released: that Communism was a system awaiting public collapse. (Media-savvy observers and international travellers didn’t need Reagan’s nonsense of “Gorby, bring down this wall” to gauge its relative imminence.) We the audience sense of course that a part of the movie’s fall into phony romanticism—withering into monotonous quarrels and dramatic charade, Louise fictitiously trekking through cold winter misery—is Beatty’s own difficulty in moving beyond the obvious. With the movie’s cost ballooning to a reported $35 million (and rumors persist the amount was closer to $60 million), it was too late for him to re-focus on Jack’s writings as a collection of impassioned vignettes to serve the biographical-political purposes much more efficaciously, though what he has provided are snippets of well-acted scenes weighed down by as much “meaning” and “perception” that can be tolerably jammed into dialogue. Beatty is rowing his lifeboat with heartfelt urgency but we’re feeling reluctant sympathy and bewildering irony: one of the great capitalist Hollywood studs has made a sincere movie about a great American writer who sincerely believed in a political system that’s just as hopeless as the stud’s tribute to him. Though Beattry officially co-wrote the script with Marxist Trevor Griffiths (who penned TV’s 1972 Adam Smith and adapted Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers for a 1981 BBC-Masterpiece Theatre presentation) and shared a WGA award absent the fact that not much of that script is in the release, Elaine May’s uncredited contributions boosting Keaton’s Bryant into a playable part are very much present. She also and often enjoyed fighting with Beatty, who enjoyed screaming back. He had problems with other ladies as well: film editor Dede Allen was exasperated by May’s interferences with the editing, and New Yorker critic Pauline Kael had been harshly nagging him not to make a biggie about an American communist that according to her noboby wanted to see. Yet the WGA honor did say something about how smart audiences in surprising numbers (domestic gross exceeded $40 million) would end up responding to Reds: they felt such good will toward Beatty’s revived esprit, especially after the lingering fart of The Fortune and the soft corn of Heaven Can Wait, that the epic’s sometimes boring and wordy earnestness was breathtaking. (Connected only by circumstantial timing, we elected a second-rate movie star-governor as president; on screen was a movie idol honoring an American commie.) Despite hating her character and becoming exhausted by Beatty’s excessive retakes, Keaton drops most of her tiresome mannerisms to save herself; Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (who in real life believed she originated the bobbed hairstyle) is unsinkable; and the “witnesses” unknowingly toss out life-preservers to a grateful audience sinking in the tedious bureaucratic squabbling and from Vittorio Storaro’s somniferous grayish tan hues. With a quiet Jack Nicholson as a sexy Eugene O’Neill, Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, Paul Sorvino, Nicolas Coster, M. Emmet Walsh, Bessie Love, George Plimpton, Dolph Sweet (as Big Bill Haywood) and Gene Hackman. The unidentified “witnesses,” who Beatty started interviewing in the early 70s, are: George Seldes, Roger Baldwin, Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Dora Rusell, Scott Nearing, Tess Davis, Heaton Vorse, Hamilton Fish, Isaac Don Levine, Rebecca West, Will Durant, Will Weinstone, Emmanuel Herbert, Arne Swabeck, Kenneth Chamberlain, Blanche Hays Fagen, Galina von Meck, Art Shields, Andrew Dasburg, Hugo Gellert, Dorothy Frooks, George Jessel, Jacob Bailin, John Ballato, Lucita Williams, Bernadine Szold-Fritz, Jessica Smith, Harry Carlisle, Arthur Meyer and Adele Gutman Nathan. (According to muckraker Seldes, Reed was indeed buried in the Kremlin wall, along with another American, Big Bill Haywood, but via Stalin’s orders, Reed was later given a “fourth-class burial” under a black marble slab near the wall. Stalin first suppressed Ten Days, then had the Russian edition rewritten, making himself and not Trotsky the hero of the November Revolution. In Reed’s full text, Stalin is scantly mentioned. Bryant later married a diplomat and had a daughter but would end her life a drunk and drug addict in Paris, dying at 49 in 1936.) Roadshows were out of vogue ten years prior to ’81 but Reds was given “special engagement” classification, with intermission and in some cities souvenir booklets. Oscars for best direction (Beatty), supporting actress (Stapleton), cinematography; nominated for best picture, best actor (Beatty), best actress (Keaton), supporting actor (Nicholson), original screnplay, art direction (Richard Sylbert and Michael Seirton), sound, costumes and film editing (Craig McKay and Allen, also the movie's executive producer). N.Y. Film Critics Circle winner for best picture; Beatty won the 1981 DGA. Running at 195 minutes, in Spherical process.

ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER  Revised 2010 All Rights Reserved.