There is one particularly great flaw in Warren Beatty's strange and remarkable Reds that threatens to scuttle the entire film, and it would have been the easiest thing in the world to fix it, if only the director hadn't seemingly viewed it as the raision d'être of the entire project. As the opening credits roll out, we begin to hear the voices of old people describing the 1910s in general, and their knowledge of the American Socialist John Reed in particular. Eventually, the credits stop and cut to the very neatly framed faces of many historically significant players of the American Left in the time of WWI (listed in the credits as "The Witnesses"), set against a black background as they continue to reminisce.

I understand that Beatty wanted to lend his film a sense of Grim Historic Purpose, but talking heads is talking heads, and opening a 195 minute epic with four minutes of doddering old people trying to remember something that happened 60 years ago does not augur well. While there will never again be such a concentrated burst of agéd Leftists as at the opening, there are plenty of insertions of same as the film winds on, and every single time the effect is exactly the same, stripping the story of any and all momentum it had managed to accrue since the last shocking, plot-crushing insert shot of a portrait in encroaching senility.

This great flaw points out a minor yet chronic flaw that grips Reds early on and never lets go: it is horribly structured. The film tells two stories in parallel: the first is how New York journalist John Reed (Beatty) falls ever more deeply in love with the idea of Socialist revolution, ultimately leaving America to work in the newly Communist Russia; the second is the story of Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), two passionate idealists, falling in love despite the overwhelming history occurring all around them. The film is terribly forthright about its desire to be a great romantic epic like Gone with the Wind, or especially Doctor Zhivago. (Beatty wanted to cast his lover/Zhivago star Julie Christie in Keaton's role, apparently possessing not the slightest hint of self-awareness), but it fails. It fails because of how badly it presents the central relationship between Reed and Bryant.

The montage has long been a bane of the romantic film: let's not muck about with showing these people actually falling in love, let's just cut from cute moment to cute moment! Look, he's feeding his snow-cone to a chipmunk! Beatty uses the montage in Reds; he uses it proudly, and he uses it all the goddamn time.

Early in the film, and by "early" I mean "half of an hour in, but the bastard is 195 minutes long," Reed has seduced the married Bryant to join him in Greenwich Village. There, he carries forth with many important American intellectuals of the time, while she feels very small and hated. Somtimes, Bryant and Reed go dancing. This is all communicated in a montage, some three minutes in length, in which scenes of chaotic and unintelligible shouting in the Greenwich salons are alternated with Bryant and Reed dancing to Stephen Sondheim's grandly old-fashioned ragtime score. It is, admittedly, a quick and efficient way to communicate that time is passing and Bryant is bored. It is also cheap and easy. And three minutes long.

This is the first montage of the film, and therefore easy to forgive. The later montages, not so much. Not only because there are many of them, but because they constantly eat up moments that would have been better represented as full scenes. For example, midway through the film (101 minutes, longer than many brilliant masterpieces), Bryant and Reed are together in Russia during the October Revolution, having split up angrily over various quibbly things. As a result of covering the revolution together, they fall back in love. Do we see how they do this? No, there is a montage of cute scenes (no chipmunks, nor snow-cones, more's the pity), awesomely set to "The Internationale" in the film's most ill-advised directorial flourish.

That's the whole Romantic Epic Story in a nutshell: everything that's interesting happens either in a montage or offscreen entirely. To be fair, Doctor Zhivago had exactly the same quirk, and Reds is at any rate a better film than Doctor Zhivago, but to say, "one classic film is worse than another" does not excuse the mistakes made in either.

Everything else about the film, happily, is top-tier all the way, and I don't mean for that to sound thin after all that criticism; it's just that the story is so very much the first thing you notice about Reds. I wish it weren't, because this is a completely interesting film: the idiom of the '70s being applied to a genre of the '50s and '60s, at the dawn of the '80s. It's not a mess, although it sounds like it could be; actually, it's sort of amazing to think about.

To begin with the film looks...well, it looks like God shot it, but that's not where I was going. It looks like the spiritual heir to The Godfather, Part II, and a precursor to Once Upon a Time in America. You know what I'm talking about: that glorious, limited-palate pseudo-sepia-toned soft-focused look that has come to mean "this takes place in the first thirty years of the 20th Century in America," and when it's done well it's the most lovely and comforting look a film can have. It's done well in Reds. In fact, it's done better in Reds than in any other film I can name, because it's being done by Vittorio Storaro.

He's one of the most famous cinematographers in history, so I probably don't have to explain who he is, really, but let's just say for the uninitiated that early in his career, he shot the single most perfect-looking color film in history, Bertolucci's The Conformist. Reds does not match that accomplishment, of course - for then, there would be two of the single most perfect-looking color film in history, which is not possible - but there is not a frame in which it is not completely obvious that a genius is present. I haven't seen every movie made in the 1980s, so I won't say that Reds is the most beautiful American film of its decade. But I will be passive-aggressive about it.

I think that great DP's fall into two types (and of course there's not a clean, unbreachable line between the two, just that I have observed these tendencies): Collaborators and Show-Offs. Collaborators are the one who make images that are visually arresting because they are tied into the themes and drama of the film as a whole. Sven Nykvist and Robert Richardson are Collaborators. Whereas Show-Offs make beautiful images for beauty's own sake. Not that it makes the film worse, just that it looks so good you don't care what it means. Storaro is a total Show-Off. There's not any given five minutes that goes by in Reds without something offensively gorgeous happening. It makes the whole three hours and fifteen minutes not only bearable, but a privilege - strange that the story can't justify the film's running time, but the cinematography can.

Beyond that, the cinematography is interesting for the same reason that several elements of the film are interesting: it's so very 1970s. I don't mean that as an insult or a compliment, just as an observation. It falls very much in line with the visual style that was developed in the 12 years prior to its release; it has been directed using the techniques of that decade; edited in the style of that decade. And my lord, has it ever been acted in the style of that decade.

Look at the cast! Beatty, Keaton, Jack Nicholson (as Eugene O'Neill!). And Maureen Stapleton, who wasn't "of" the '70s cinema so much as she was "of" Broadway, and had her own individual style going anyway. But anyway, the Big Three were, of course, major forces in the decade's movies, and all three were fairly naturalistic performers, Keaton especially (fine, Nicholson was not so "naturalistic" at times; but he was in Reds. In fact, I've never seen him be less "Jack Nicholson" than he was here). I found it strange, honestly. I liked it. But compared to your David Lean epics, the acting was very mumbly and low-key. All the way down to The Lord of the Rings, movies that are longer than three hours are supposed to have heightened, stagy, British performances in them. Not the case here; both leads feel like they've just walked out of a Sidney Lumet drama. And in both cases, the disconnect between the performance and the surrounding is actually quite exciting - Keaton in particular is just about as good as I've ever seen her, and only four years removed from Annie Hall, I'm surprised by how little of that persona leached into her performance here.

There are few examples of the techniques of one generation being applied to the generic styles of another, especially in our modern day of films like The Good German and The Aviator, with their fixation on perfect recreation of classic movies. If Reds did nothing else, it would at least be good for that, one final gasp of the dying '70s cinema in one last burst of formal experimentation. But that's not the only thing it does, and since I began by slagging on the story, I might as well end by praising it.

As a tale of individuals caught up by history, Reds is honestly very compelling. Despite the director's reputation amongst the less-aesthetic, more-conservative members of our modern discourse, Beatty did not set out to make a giant apologia for Communism. Certainly, he has a romantic eye for the progressives at the turn of the last century, and there's no doubt that Stapleton's Emma Goldman in particular receives a hagiographic treatment. But he also goes out of his way to showcase the failures of the revolutionaries, and the betrayal of creed in favor of power that turned the Bolsheviks into totalitarians.

To this modern leftist, there's a dark humor to some of the scenes, in which the American Socialists splinter into intractable cells based on...well, that's never clear, because it's not actually a real difference. It's all the Judean People's Front versus the People's Front of Judea, and it's a rather uncomfortable mirror: we progressives have always been a bit famous for letting the house burn down while we haggle over the color of the curtains, it seems.

And it's that mirror that led me, at least, to the ultimate triumph of Reds: we all want to be idealists, but idealists sell out and lose and become cynics. Beatty recognized that, and didn't want to accept it, and so he tells a story in celebration of the idealists and the romantics. In the end, John Reed lost. But he fought for his beliefs and his dreams. That made him a dangerous man, because in any country - American democracy or Soviet dictatorship - we are discouraged from believing things. Don't rock the boat, don't be impolite or unreasonable or unhinged, and pay no attention to the politicians from all sides eating out on lobbyists' money. Screw that - three cheers for dangerous men. Three cheers for John Reed.