I’d never have picked this movie up on a simple whim, thinking nothing of it by title and so on–I’d never really heard about it before it came out on DVD. I’m not sure why; I noted it to a co-worker at the time and they were thoroughly enthused, which sort of surprised me, considering that, as I said, I’d never even heard the name before. I also discovered the film had been nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won three, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. How, then, should its name evade a film buff?
Still, it did, and that’s sort of that.
As with previous lengthy films (this one runs a solid 195 minutes–3 hours and 15 minutes, for those of you who do not wish to divide that up and don’t instantly recognize such lengths) this one has hung around in my collection for a while, until I felt like I had the time to watch it. Also, as per usual, it was thoroughly satisfying and did not drag (OK Spartacus was a bit of an exception here, but this one wasn’t) as it wove together two disparate stories. I didn’t know much about the plot at all when I bought it, and even less when I sat down to watch it today–which is my preferred method. If I’m not expecting a certain type of picture, I can just watch whatever it is that’s there and enjoy what it is, instead of comparing it to expectation. As such I was not aware, going in, that it was, in fact, historically based. Apparently it was taken to task for some simplification and changes, but my feeling there is–well, what narrative doesn’t? The film doesn’t claim to be a documentary, or even portray itself as one–though one of the interesting things about it are interviews sprinkled liberally throughout.
The essential story we have here is that of journalist Jack Reed (Warren Beatty), who was a real journalist and communist activist, and his actions on that particular front, as well as a romance with feminist and activist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). We’re following both their romance–the intimate, personal story–and the activism that Reed participated in–the big, expansive story. The aforementioned interviews are with real people who know Reed and Bryant, or who at least had recollections of the events they were associated with them. It’s an interesting mix, and the two elements could have easily stricken a huge division in the film along the lines of drama and reality. Instead, they work together; it’s the way that shows on the History Channel are supposed to work. We have experts (of a kind) speaking against a pure black background, then we have a dramatization of the events, emotions or ideas that they are speaking about. Except, we aren’t seeing amateurish dramatization with “DRAMATIZATION” pasted onto the bottom of the frame, nor is it flickering, muted, silent or filtered. We shift from one to the other, fluidly, and see, not influence, but perception filtered into the drama. We occasionally get contradictory interview responses, where one person talks about the great swell of anti-war sentiment, and someone else firmly declaring there was not a single living American soul against the first World War. Between this and Beatty’s decision to refrain from specifically identifying these “witnesses,” we see some of reality colouring our perception of characters, and showing how inevitable historical errors are in any dramatization–when any two given people can disagree so completely, what is the exact truth? (It’s gratifying to note here that Beatty, in interview, just said from the TV behind me, that fact is slippery and the witnesses show this.)
Still, this isn’t the point of the film, simply an interesting stream that flows through it and helps to reinforce basic enjoyment of the film while simultaneously pointing out the fact that the story is, overall, historical. From this, many are quick to assume that a very liberal actor like Beatty would only make a film about Communism to espouse his great apprecation (or even worship, in some minds) of it. It’s not really the case though; Lenin is spoken of repeatedly as being lacking in charisma, and even as being cold and hard, and a pure intellectual. It’s shown consistently that, while the silly paranoia–which I admit I did not realize was around that early–that emanated from the U.S. government as regards Communism, shown through various events including a rather satisfying courtroom testimony by Lousie Bryant (“If that’s how ‘decent, God-fearing Christians act,’ give me atheists any day,”), was present then, the Communist systems developing in Russia were far from idealistic. Reed himself is criticized for his idealism at many times, and spends much of the film clearly drowning in the beaurocracy of attempting to put ideas into effect when dealing with large groups of people, or even one small group of people with power. We see his petty infighting with fellow American socialists, attempting to declare each of their separate parties the “true” Communisty party of America, and then we see how very little this matters to the Russian Communists, when Reed travels over there to represent his particular group.
Barely noted, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman appear in this film–Hackman not even recieving credit. He was surprising in a minor role, not overpowering everyone and being very much an ‘everyman’ sort of character, and Jack was in an atypically subdued role as playwright Eugene O’Neill. He was clearly introverted, passionate, intense and private, and Jack showed a side of his skill I have not seen before, and I was very pleased to see it. Diane Keaton had a much meatier role than I’m used to seeing her in, and she lives up to the challenge, though Maureen Stapleton is the Oscar winner for the film on the acting front, and she does deftly and skillfully command her role in the scenes in which she appears, taking care not to steal any scenes, but never letting herself melt into the background either.
For my Final Notes*:
I feel the need to note the presence of: M. Emmet Walsh, character actor extraordinaire, who you would almost doubtlessly recognize if you saw or heard him, Edward Herrmann, of which the same can be said(who most of my age group know as Max in The Lost Boys–curiously he plays real person Max Eastman here), Jerry Hardin, who many know as “Deep Throat” from The X-Files, Paul Sorvino, and Jerzy Kosinski, author of Being There. Sorvino has one of the larger roles as Italian immigrant Louis Fraina, one of the fellow party members Reed disagrees with and splinters away from, though Herrmann has a respectably sized role as well. Kosinski does potrary a very dogmatic, passionate firebrand of an executive member of the Russian Communist party, which was fairly impressive for someone who did so little (celluloid, at least, I know nothing of his theatrical background or lack thereof) acting beyond it.
*Really, I suppose I should call it “Character Actor Watch” or “Useless–No, Really, I Mean It, Useless–Trivia.”