SEEING RED" is the antidote to seeing"Red Dawn." It's a sympathetic documentary on the American Communist Party from ascension in the Depression to disaffection and disillusionment in 1956, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Up until then, they had called him "Uncle Joe."

A dozen or so later-day leftists are interviewed by Julia Reichert, who co-produced and co-directed with fellow independent filmmaker James Klein. The old-time radicals look like grandparents in an all-American family album. But most remain dedicated activists (some are still party members, most are not) who savor the memory of their revolutionary days. Bill Bailey, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, now fights nuclear arms; and Rose Kryzak, who then fought for Social Security, now fights for senior citizens' rights.

And, of course, there's Pete Seeger, who hasn't missed a documentary since I don't know when. But he's a good soul, and it helps to have some of the old music and a banjo when the camera makes those long, slow sweeps of snapshots of which the documentarians are so fond.

Old newspaper clippings and vintage footage, patched together with memories, are the tools of documentarians like these who want to dust off our history a little. They put the past in perspective, borrowing from scrapbooks. Time has yellowed the edges and they've crumbled some, so things don't seem nearly as frightening as they once were to those who lived with them.

Distortion, in fact, forced the Communists further underground. Nixon, Humphrey, Reagan, McCarthy all have a go at Red-baiting in film clips. But you can always count on Nixon to come up with just the right quote when you're making agitprop. Having noted that Commies are rats, he adds, "When you go out to shoot rats, you've got to shoot straight."

That may be tough talk, but "Seeing Red" is soft on its subjects. In fact, Reichert makes Gene Shalit look vicious. But documentary has long since quit pretending it was without bias. And knee-jerk or not, this one is extraordinarily comprehensive. It is an affectionate piecework that explores a generation of American radicals.

It was shot on a low budget. But it's heart that counts, isn't it? And the people here seem to have no lack of that, or courage either.

SEEING RED -- At the Inner Circle.