Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)

Late in this film, we see Warren Beatty running from a burning train car in the desert, with gunfire all around him.  It’s an image that’s quite literally right out of “Lawrence of Arabia” and one that suggests that “Reds” is just as much an ‘epic’ as “Lawrence” is.  Indeed, there’s plenty of the requisite great Vittorio Storaro cinematography and vistas and locales and a cast of thousands that all outwardly signify epic, as well as the larger-than-life ambitions and ideals of its subject, John Reed.  Reed’s life was an extraordinary one, spanning limitless miles both physically and intellectually as he and his wife Louise Bryant covered the Russian Revolution first-hand and then tried to bring its communist ideals to America, and such a life is rife for adapting for the screen.  This project was Warren Beatty’s baby, as he produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in it, but it’s far from a propaganda piece or a treatise defending leftist politics.  It’s merely a point in time, a chronicle of two people caught up in an amazing moment in the history of the world (encapsulated perfectly in a wonderful montage that closes out the film’s first half), that’s at its best not when focusing on John Reed’s politics or oft-foolish attempt to coax a worker’s revolution in America, but on the relationship between he and Louise Bryant, and their common zeal for a particular cause. 

Within the backdrop of political unrest in America and outright revolt in Russia, their romance is a compelling one, mainly because of Warren Beatty’s lively performance as the dashing and exuberant, yet foolhardy and vulnerable Reed, and Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, initially starstruck and out of her league in following Reed to the free love-driven Greenwich Village, but then becoming strong-willed and surprisingly independent (in regard to her sexual habits and otherwise…).  All the basement communist meetings and Reed barging into political conventions and making the harrowing journey to Russia to gain recognition for the American communist party did nearly nothing for me – in fact, these scenes of petty, secretive backroom arguments convinced me that Reed’s ilk had little if any relevance in America at the time.  So why should I care about any of this?  Because I bought most into Reed and Bryant themselves, the people rather than the political motivations.  Sure, there are a good number of stock domestic argument scenes that are quite frankly overly-written (indeed, this film’s great fault is in all likelihood its slight over-reliance on unrealistically intellectual dialogue in general), but I still bought into and was riveted by the ups and downs of their relationship, with all the rocky points and complications that you’d expect (hey, when a romance is set before a revolution, there’d better be complications).  The best part of this film may have been the least ‘epic’ in scope, chronicling the affair between Louise and the playwright Eugene O’Neill, played by Jack Nicholson in perhaps the best performance he’s ever given – understated, soulful, exuding deep intelligence, and that trademark Nicholson smarminess barely concealing a deep and impassioned sadness and jealousy towards the love that Louise so obviously has for John Reed.  You’re never quite able to grasp just how much of a passion Louise has for the politics that John has dedicated his life to, if any.  All you see is that, despite leaving him once every few seconds, his knack for being an overly-zealous prick, and being separated by thousands of miles, they’re made for each other (this despite a rather shamelessly melodramatic stretch of the film where she treks through the Russian woods to find her lost beloved).  Love conquers all, it seems, and for once that didn’t feel like a hopelessly clichéd and artificial backbone of a major screenplay.

Both elements of this film, the romance and the socio-political epic, have their flaws – the romantic story often falls into the realm of dialogue-driven cliché, and scenes of John Reed breaking into political rallies and arguing with other socialists get old rather quickly.  But regardless, the scope of the romance that this film depicts is compelling to no end.  What’s certain is that “Reds” neither completely defends nor completely demonizes communism – John Reed’s zeal for the worker’s revolution is infinite at first, until he becomes disillusioned with the whole thing when he experiences the less-than-savory conditions of Russia and its emotionally-crippled leaders first-hand, as well as being taken under the wing of the equally-disillusioned Emma Goldman, played by the wonderful, wonderful Maureen Stapleton, so the idealistic benefits and ugly detriments of communism are both on full display here.  “Reds” is at its greatest when communism itself isn’t at the forefront, but rather the man and the woman who became swept up in its tidal wave in one country, and their doomed attempt to create a similar tidal wave in a country at a much lower tide. Much of this film consists of present-day interviews with the ‘witnesses’ – old men and women who either knew Reed and Bryant or were active participants in the era, and it’s only fitting that much of what they reminisce about isn’t what the history books tell you about the communist revolution or the fledgling socialist party in America in general, but rather vague reminiscences about John Reed and Louise Bryant, in terms of personal character rather than ideals.  “Were they socialists?”, one witness tries to remember as Reed and Bryant are now mere enigmas in the cloudy recesses of this old person’s memory.  When this film casts doubt on their motivations and makes questions like that difficult to answer, when we’re tasked with speculating why John Reed and Louise Bryant became inseparable rather than whether communism is good or evil, when it’s a romantic epic rather than an epic of sweeping panoramas and explosions and great physical journeys, it’s at its best.



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