Passion projects are not uncommon on the list, and neither are films that have been placed in the epic genre. But what does the term epic really mean? What do people think of when they think of an “epic film”? Lawrence of Arabia (and most of the films by David Lean), The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and plenty of other films with a grandiose sense of storytelling. The American Film Institute, however, has seen fit to include Reds among its Top 10 list of epic films, and I’m really not sure why. Warren Beatty’s passion project for over a decade is certainly long, like an epic, and it takes place over a particularly important period of historical significance, but the grandiosity is absent here. This doesn’t feel like an epic at all, but it’s still a good film regardless.
The film details the lives and romance of American journalist and Communist sympathizer John “Jack” Reed and fellow writer Louise Bryant, who become involved during the period of unrest preceding the Russian Revolution, and the two continue their on/off relationship as the Revolution swings into full tilt, covered by the duo, in particular Reed and his book ’10 Days that Shook the World’. It’s primarily a tale of romance, and the trials of romance amidst one man’s increasing sympathizing with the Bolsheviks and their revolution. But, and this is a pretty large one, that’s really all it is. For a film that’s over three hours long, it has a surprisingly succinct plotline; the film is only as long as it is because Beatty (as director, producer, writer, and lead actor) chooses to portray that plotline with exacting detail to the lives lived by Reed and Bryant. Otherwise, though, this is a pretty average film, though it is a very well made one. Think Dr. Zhivago without the grandness; Titanic without the bombastic action. The historical backdrop is still there, but it doesn’t really frame the action the way it does in other films that are truly epic. The jaunty piano music that played over the opening credits threw me for a loop at first, as I was expecting the film to be a swooning romantic epic with a historical background, a la Dr. Zhivago, but then the film settled into its routine, and it never really strayed from its routine; this ended up being a perfect example of the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”. I will say, though; the decision to intercut the film with actual interview segments with people who knew the real John Reed and Louise Bryant was a very good one; it helped break up the film into more manageable chunks, and provided a pseudo-narration that helped move it along where the film wouldn’t have picked up the pace otherwise.
This ended up being nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, but lost most of them (though Beatty did win for Best Director), including the big one, Best picture, to Chariots of Fire. Having seen both films now, I would definitely put Chariots over this; nothing against this film, but it stayed too much in the realm of “just good” instead of reaching for the heavens, like practically every other epic out there. when it was over, I had a mild feeling of “that’s it?”, followed by a resolution of “that was pretty good”, and that was that. It’s a little disappointing to have to consider a three-plus-hour film and a supposed epic as just another box on the checklist, but that’s what Reds was for me. It was nice, and if you’re interested, you’ll probably like it, but I can’t make the guarantee that this will be worth the time you’d need to put into it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10