What an interesting experience, watching 'Reds' twenty-five years on. At the time of its theatrical release in 1981, Warren Beatty's gargantuan 195-minute ode to Jack Reed, the rabble-rouser who so famously documented the Russian revolution with "Ten Days That Shook the World," caused quite a stir. Positioned as a sort of left-leaning polemic by Hollywood's favorite pretty boy, it was to be Beatty's own 'Doctor Zhivago' -- the kind of sweeping epic by a Tinseltown elite that was predestined to win reams of awards, critical hosannas and huge box office. Yet while it earned a boatload of Oscar nominations and a good deal of praise, audience reaction was fairly muted, and the film lost the big Oscar prize to underdog 'Chariots of Fire.' 'Reds' hasn't been seen much since, both because of Beatty's refusal to let the film be edited for broadcast television, as well as the fact that there just isn't that much interest in Reed anymore.
'Reds' is certainly a juggernaut of a film. Beatty reportedly shot nearly 150 hours of footage, including remembrances of the various survivors of Reed's era. No mere bookends, these interviews are sprinkled liberally throughout the film, providing the connective tissue that both binds the film's often fast-and-loose retelling of history, and expanding and enhancing its emotional scope and depth. Even if most of these names have been long forgotten, they remain compelling, and using these "witnesses" as a structural framework was certainly an inspired choice by Beatty
Odd, then, that the Jack Reed we see dramatized in 'Reds' doesn't quite match the one being described. Beatty was in his forties at the time 'Reds' was made, and he cast his real-life lover at the time, Diane Keaton, as Reed's partner (and eventual wife) Louise Bryant. Though Keaton was in her thirties, they are both still too old for the parts, and often seem to be using the film as their own form of relationship counseling rather trying to fully embody two supposed anarchists. Although Keaton's Bryant at least grows more mature as this very long film wears on, they still seem like spoilt children, whose juvenile arguments start to feel like tennis matches, thanks to Beatty's back-and-forth editing. It's also rather humorous that Keaton plays Bryant as so neurotic and insecure about her own limitations as a writer that she has a near-nervous breakdown with even the slightest critique of her work, which makes you wonder why Reed is so in love with her. Perhaps Beatty felt Reed needed to be with someone this emotionally frail so that his own insecurities would seem smaller in comparison? Only when Jack Nicholson -- in a admirably restrained supporting turn as fellow poet and Bryant's lover Eugene O'Neill -- tells her sarcastically, "I'd kill you if I could, but I can't," do we feel there is finally a voice of reason amid all the petty insanity.
Beatty was being nothing if not audacious, however, in staging the historical sweep and politics of Reed's life as a domestic drama. After the film gets lost in its second hour with befuddled social intrigue that is more confusing than suspenseful, Beatty returns the romance front and center for the big final act. Unfortunately, he also creates a fictional journey the real-life Bryant never took, as she crosses a great ice flow to win Reed back into her arms. The 'English Patient' moment of Russian communist epics, it is fairly ludicrous, and Beatty's increasing melodramatics begin to jar badly with the simplicity and candor of the witness interviews. Yet, despite all this, 'Reds' still works on a basic level because Beatty allows us to understand Reed's politics as an extension of his personal life and experiences, and not just big speeches told atop podiums to swarming masses of the working class. Had Beatty focused solely on the public profile of Reed, he may have seemed like more of an icon, if hardly a man.
In the end, what becomes shockingly apparent about 'Reds' is that twenty-five years later it is really far more conventional than its radical reputation suggests. Despite the upset stomach the mere utterance of the word "communism" seems to cause in some people, Beatty's vision of Reed's personal politics seems more introspective than incendiary, and his love affair with Bryant more mushy than majestic. Though David Lean's oeuvre has nothing to worry about, 'Reds' remains both an appealing love story between two bratty if likable bohemians as well as a sharply realized epic. It also achieves some very fine moments with memorable supporting performances -- in addition to Nicholson, watch for Gene Hackman, Edward Hermann and a Best Supporting Actress turn by a wonderful Maureen Stapleton. Perhaps the reason the film hasn't earned itself a stronger reputation over the years is because it needed to be a little bit more than just the sum of its admittedly fine parts.
'Reds' hits HD DVD day-and-date with the Blu-ray release, and both are firsts for the next-gen formats -- a two-disc set that splits the film right down the middle. Though the move is sure to irritate some (I have to admit I've become so accustomed to the movie and the extras all fitting on a single next-gen disc that the idea is a bit jarring), given that the film had an intermission when it played in the theaters anyway, I can't say at I was all that bothered about having to get up in the middle of the movie to switch discs.
That said, this 1080p/VC-1 transfer is really quite good, and maybe even a hair better than its MPEG-2-encoded Blu-ray rival. 'Reds' is now twenty-five years old, and it is a testament to the attention to detail Paramount has given to the film's restoration that it looks half that. Still, don't expect 'Reds' to look "modern." The look of the film has a natural, even delicate, appeal. The source print is just about impeccable. Sure, there is grain throughout, sometimes excessive (Beatty uses a deep blue filter sporadically during low-lit shots, which results in some noticeable fuzziness) but any print defects such as dropouts, blemishes and scratches are gone. Blacks are surprisingly consistent. Contrast does waver at times, and the higher end of the grayscale is flatter than a modern movie. But sharpness is really quite strong -- I expected 'Reds' to look a lot softer, even in high-def.
Colors are also nicely reproduced; aside from the aforementioned deep blues which suffer as a result of the source material, hues are otherwise rich and clean. While exteriors are generally more washed out, oranges especially are vibrant and fleshtones very accurate. Depth and detail are also rather exceptional for a film a quarter of a century ancient. Fine textures such as fabrics are clearly visible, and some of the more striking locations have a real sense of three-dimensionality.
Going back to the HD DVD versus Blu-ray comparison, doing an A/B and split-screen comparison, the HD DVD just seems a bit smoother, film-like and detailed. Granted, the upgrade is very minor, but still I noticed it. For example, during the scene when Warren Beatty first meets Diane Keaton in a large conference room, I have to give the slight edge to the HD DVD in terms of resolving the finest details in backgrounds. Same goes for some later scenes, such as the almost-montage sequence when Jack Nicholson is romancing Keaton -- the heavily-filtered deep blue shoreside shots again looked a bit more sharp and deep on the HD DVD. Overall, again the difference is quite minor, perhaps even meager. And certainly, the Blu-ray looks very good. But again, I have to give the picture quality edge to the HD DVD.
Paramount has gifted 'Reds' with a new Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track for its HD DVD debut, and it's encoded at 1.5mbps to boot (matching its Blu-ray counterpart). Unfortunately, even this lavish treatment can't do much with the film's limited elements. 'Reds' still sounds dated and compressed, with a rather tinny quality that lacks heft, depth and realism. (Note that for the purists, Paramount has also included the film's original mono mix in Dolby Digital 2.0.)
Dynamic range is rather flat. High-end sounds are muted, with confined mid-range and little true low end. On the plus side, the source elements appear to have been nicely cleaned up, with no noticeable distractions such as hiss, pops or distortion. Surround use feels processed, with little in the way of truly discrete effects. And as 'Reds' is really a dialogue-driven film, it is largely front heavy, with only the more boisterous scenes having any atmospherics at all. Technically, I can't really complain about anything here, this is just not that exciting a soundtrack.
Warren Beatty gets it off his chest right up front -- he has never participated in supplemental content before because he doesn't "believe in" in the idea, so his anchoring of this extras package is a rare thing indeed. Don't expect anything fancy here, no bells and whistles, no interactivity. Even an audio commentary is verboten -- what Beatty calls "those silly things where people talk over scenes from a movie." Just a simple 75-minute, seven-part documentary entitled "Witness To 'Reds.'" But it is a strong-enough documentary that it quickly erases any longings we may have for a bevy of other extras.
If only all extras were this thorough, narratively sound, and classy. Joining in the fun with Beatty are Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, one-time Paramount CEO Barry Diller, special consultant Jeremy Pikser, director of photography Vittorio Storato and most of the film's major crew members -- only Diane Keaton sits out the proceedings, and she is sorely missed. All are humorous and warm but respectful -- and likely few of them would have appeared here if it wasn't for Beatty's participation.
"The Rising," "Comrades" and "Testimonials" tackle Beatty's years-long gestation of the project, which certainly required a leap of faith for any studio to fund, despite Beatty's huge marquee value at the time -- as Beatty puts it, who was going to pay for "a movie about a communist who dies?" Casting went a bit easier, and even Beatty's controversial use of real-life associates and friends of the real Jack Reed makes perfect sense as examined here.
"The March" and "Revolution, Part I" and "Revolution, Part II" are more usual dissections of the film's epic production, which crossed multiple continents and spanned many months of planning and shooting. Though there is no real behind-the-scenes footage, the use of still materials picks up the slack and it's all nicely edited together. Beatty's working relationship with Storato is also examined here, as well as the film's impressive visual sweep.
The final part of the doc is "Propaganda," which is a bit too brief of a look at the film's post-production and reception. Beatty is surprisingly humble about the whole thing, calling his movies "works of insanity." What is 'Reds' ultimate place in movie history? Who knows? But 'Witness to 'Reds'" is a nice document of it all nonetheless.
Rounding out the extras is a new theatrical trailer created especially for the film's DVD reissue. Too bad none of the film's original marketing materials are included.
'Reds' is a rather unusual epic -- one more intimate than it is larger-than-life. As writer, director and star, Warren Beatty's imprint is all over 'Reds,' and so whatever the film's failings, it is also filled with his passion. And while it is most remembered for its "radical politics," truth be told, whatever side of the political fence you're on, you'll probably find something worthwhile in the film, even its mawkish love story. This HD DVD release is another solid effort from Paramount, with a very fine remaster and a nice retrospective documentary that offset a lackluster surround remix. The fact that this is a two-disc set and requires a disc swap mid-movie might turn some potential fans off, but don't let a mere inconvenience distract you from checking out 'Reds,' even if it is only as a rental.