Reds is a movie that I was badly wanting not to like. This 1981 historical epic about the life of degenerate American journalist and Communist activist John Reed (played by Warren Beatty) and his equally degenerate journalist wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is definitely pro-Communist. Additionally, I have always found Reds’ writer/director/producer/star Warren Beatty to be a rather distasteful character in his own right. And yet I can’t deny that much of Reds is objectively excellent. It is wonderfully written, directed, casted, performed, and shot. Whatever I may feel about the characters or its message, the whole film is just so well executed that I have no choice but to enjoy it in spite of everything.
Reds clocks in at a mammoth three hours and fifteen minutes, divided into two halves and separated by an intermission. The first half deals with the beginning of Reed and Bryant’s tumultuous on-again off-again romance during the First World War and climaxes with the Bolshevik Revolution, which Reed and Bryant were both on hand to witness. The second half covers the events of Reed’s life after the publication of Ten Days That Shook the World, his firsthand account of the revolution, until his premature death in 1920 at age 32. Throughout the movie, we are treated to interview excerpts from some very old people who were personally acquainted with Reed and Bryant, most of whom were Communist activists. The only one I recognized was Adela St. Johns, as she was also prominently featured in Kevin Brownlow’s documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film.
The movie opens in 1915 in Portland, Oregon. Louise Bryant is a feminist and progressive journalist. She is married to Paul Trullinger, a dentist by trade and a relative square compared to his free-spirited wife. Paul is annoyed by his wife’s antics, including her posing for risqué “art” photos, but is willing to indulge her flights of fancy nonetheless.
John Reed, a Portland hometown hero, comes back to visit. By this time, Reed is a celebrated journalist after his reporting on riding with Pancho Villa’s army as well as covering the Great War from both sides of the front. Louise talks Reed into an interview, which takes place at her private studio. Once there, Reed asks Louise if she is married, and she lies by saying that she does not believe in marriage.
Once the interview starts, Reed becomes a tidal wave of commie babble:
All right, Miss Bryant, do you want an interview? Write this down. Are you naïve enough to think containing German militarism has anything to do with this war? Don’t you understand that England and France own the world economy and Germany just wants a piece of it? Keep writing, Miss Bryant. Miss Bryant, can’t you grasp that J. P. Morgan has loaned England and France a billion dollars? And if Germany wins, he won’t get it back! More coffee? America’d be entering the war to protect J. P. Morgan’s money. If he loses, we’ll have a depression. So the real question is, why do we have an economy where the poor have to pay so the rich won’t lose money?
They meet again the next day at a dinner party, and Reed learns that Louise is in fact married after all. She is embarrassed and afraid that Reed now thinks she is a poseur, a square playing at being a radical. After the party, Louise propositions Reed for sex on the front lawn of the house to prove to prove her credibility as a non-conformist and a “modern woman.”
Reed and Bryant then begin a sexual affair, and as Reed is about to leave Portland, he invites Louise to come back to New York with him. Louise asks, “What as? Your girlfriend? Your mistress? Your paramour? Your concubine?”
This is foreshadowing. John Reed is comfortable with his degeneracy, but Louise Bryant, while sexually liberal by the standards of her time, is not actually psychologically equipped to be a true nihilist and still requires some level of emotional security. This becomes a source of conflict throughout the movie.
Louise does end up leaving her husband and moving to Greenwich Village in New York City. Reed shows her around and introduces her to his famous friends. Here, Louise starts to develop something of an inferiority complex. While she may have been a radical by Portland standards, once she is around some real East Coast alpha-bohemians. she feels positively conventional by comparison. She is a mediocrity as a writer and she has nothing like the intellectual chops of Reed’s more sophisticated friends. At a party, she tries to engage anarchist radical Emma Goldman (played by Maureen Stapleton, who won an Oscar for the role) in a debate over the efficacy of voting, and is made to feel stupid for having done so.
On top of this, she comes to resent living in Reed’s shadow. Reed is constantly travelling around the country for his journalism, while Louise’s writing career falters. And while she intellectually likes the idea of “free love,” emotionally she struggles with it.
Louise lands a role in a play written by rising poet/playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). Eugene becomes fond of Louise. An old-school romantic, Eugene also senses Louise’s dissatisfaction with her open relationship and makes his move. “If you were mine, I wouldn’t share you with anybody or anything,” he tells her. “It’d be just you and me. We’d be the center of it all. I know it would feel a lot more like love than being left alone with your work.”
Beatty said he cast Nicholson in the role of Eugene O’Neill because Nicholson was the only person he could imagine stealing a girl from him. Which is a very Warren Beatty thing to say.
When Reed returns home, he learns of Louise’s affair with Eugene and a competitive love triangle ensues. It is a competition between Reed, the intellectual ideologue, and O’Neill the romantic artist. In order to secure victory, both men end up having to compromise on their principles. Eugene offer Louise an open relationship and Reed offers her marriage. Louise ends up choosing both. She marries Reed but continues carrying on an affair with O’Neill as well.
This eventually comes to a head one night. Reed tells Louise that he is aware of her affair with Eugene and doesn’t care. He also lets slip that he also slept with other women. Louise flips out and decides to leave him. On the surface, this seems like the ultimate in hypocrisy. My interpretation is that Louise is mad that Reed doesn’t care that she had an affair, and also that her affair with Eugene had at least some real substance to it. There were some deep feelings involved between her and Eugene, whereas Reed is just a narcissist. He is not capable of developing any substantive emotional attachment to anyone. He is just out there banging sluts and probably considers his own wife just another slut — albeit one he lives with when he is not busy being a travelling Communist.
Louise manages to get a job as a war correspondent in France while John Reed becomes ill and has to have a kidney removed. As he is recovering, he learns that Louise was fired from her writing job for being a shitty writer but that she is staying in France nonetheless. At the same time, he hears of happenings in Russia: The Kerensky government is crumbling and the Bolsheviks are gaining momentum on their promise to get Russia out of the war.
Reed then tracks down Louise in France and asks her to go to Russia with him and his interpreter. The revolution is imminent, and ends up being one of the biggest stories of all time. Louise still hates Reed’s guts at this point, but as an aspiring writer, she realizes that this is an offer she can’t refuse.
Once in Russia, they follow the rapidly-changing developments and attend speeches by Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the gang. Reed also takes a more active role in mentoring Louise as a writer. They attend a meeting where factory workers are debating whether Russia should withdraw from the war. Some argue that pulling out of the war would be a betrayal of workers in Britain, France, and America. John Reed gets on the stage and tells the crowd that Russia should get out of the war, saying that the workers in America do not want to be fighting, either, and are looking to the Russian workers to set an example. The crowd cheers. This is a turning point for John Reed, as it is here that he crosses the threshold from merely being an observer of the Bolshevik Revolution to an active participant.
The first half ends with Reed and Bryant rekindling their romance while the Bolsheviks seize power. The Bolsheviks are shown marching triumphantly through the streets, John and Louise marching alongside them. There is an air of optimism, and it feels like a new world is unfolding.
While the first half was a love letter to Communism, showing the commies to be idealistic and altruistic, Reds redeems itself in the second half by showing its ugly side. They are shown to be stubborn, petty, purity spiraling, and callous.
John and Louise return to America full of optimism for a new era of man. The Communist spark has started a fire in Russia, and they are confident that it will spread all over the world. Ten Days That Shook the World is published and causes a sensation. Everything looks to be coming up roses for the commies.
But then things start to go south almost immediately. The Bolshevik Revolution is extremely unpopular in America, and the first Red Scare begins. The Socialist Party of America expels the pro-Bolshevik faction, and then the pro-Bolsheviks themselves split into two factions, one led by Italian immigrant Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) and the other led by Reed. The two then comically create two competing Communist parties: The Communist Party of America and The Communist Labor Party of America. One is reminded of the blood feud between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Reed ends up going back to Moscow to try to gain official recognition for his party. Louise is dead-set against this idea. For one, they just got back together, and Reed is now planning to run off on another adventure. On top of this, Louise married a writer who is now transforming into a politician. Interestingly, she is alarmed that Reed is expressing nativist sentiments when he implies that the American Communist movement should be led by American-born people, not immigrants like his rival Fraina. She tells him that if he goes to Russia that she might not be waiting when he comes back.
Reed leaves for Russia anyway, promising to return by Christmas. It is illegal for him to go there, so he has to travel first to Europe with a fake passport, and because there is a blockade of the Soviet Union, he has to take a convoluted and dangerous route through Finland to get there. Once he gets to Moscow, he ends up butting heads with Comintern head Grigory Zinoviev — whose real name was (((Hirsch Apfelbaum))).
Zinoviev tells Reed that the Soviets will not recognize his party, and instead orders the two competing parties to merge. This invalidates the entire purpose of Reed’s trip. When he tells Zinoviev that he must go back to America to keep his promise to his wife, Zinoviev guilt-trips him for putting his personal commitments ahead of the revolution.
With Reed gone, Louise pays Eugene O’Neill a visit, but finds Eugene is still very bitter about her choosing Reed over him. He becomes further annoyed when the conversation turns to events in Russia, about which Eugene is entirely cynical. Eugene sees through Reed and Bryant’s idealistic bullshit. This scene has some great dialogue as masterly performed by Jack Nicholson:
Louise: Are you really that cynical, or are you angry with me?
Eugene: I’m really that cynical. Why would I be angry with you?
Louise: Gene, if you’d been to Russia, you’d never be cynical about anything again. You would have seen people transformed. Ordinary people.
Eugene: Louise, something in me tightens when an American intellectual’s eyes shine and they start to talk to me about the Russian people. Something in me says, “Watch it. A new version of Irish Catholicism is being offered for your faith.”
Louise: It’s not like that.
Eugene: And I wonder why a lovely wife like Louise Reed, who’s just seen the brave new world, is sitting around with a cynical bastard like me instead of trotting all over Russia with her idealistic husband. It’s almost worth being converted.
Louise: Well, I was wrong to come.
Eugene: You and Jack have a lot of middle-class dreams for two radicals. Jack dreams that he can hustle the American working man, whose one dream is to be rich enough not to have to work, into a revolution led by his party. And you dream that if you discuss the revolution with a man before you go to bed with him, it’ll be missionary work rather than sex. I’m sorry to see you and Jack so serious about your sports. It’s particularly disappointing in you, Louise. You had a lighter touch when you were touting free love.
Louise: Boy, you’ve become quite the critic, haven’t you, Gene? Just leaned back and analyzed us all.
Eugene: Duplicitous women who tout free love and then get married, power-mad journalists who join the revolution instead of observing it, middle-class radicals who come looking for sex and then talk about Russia.
Louise: It must seem so contemptible to a man like you, who has the courage to sit on his ass and observe human inadequacy from the inside of a bottle. Well, I’ve never seen you do anything for anyone. I’ve never seen you give anything to anyone, so I can understand why you might suspect the motives of those who have. But whatever Jack’s motives are, how–
Eugene: I seem to have touched a wound.
Louise: You’re a wounded son-of-a-bitch, and whatever I’ve done to you, you’ve made me pay for it.
Earlier in the movie, one is left with the impression that Eugene was the romantic and Reed was the nihilist. With this scene, the movie tries to flip the script and show Eugene as the self-centered one and Reed as the romantic committed to a cause higher than himself. It was a good effort, but I still ended up liking Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill far better than Warren Beatty’s John Reed.
Reed leaves Moscow for America. Unfortunately, he is arrested in Finland en route. The American consulate has no interest in helping him, but Reed manages to get word to a friend in America. When Louise Bryant learns of Reed’s arrest, she leaves America (again, illegally) to try to help him. But before she can get there, Finland releases Reed as part of a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union.
Reed’s problems with the Bolsheviks continue. He has difficulties making them understand the situation on the ground in America. He wants to make English the official language of the American Communist party to avoid the cumbersome use of interpreters, but the Soviets deny his request. They make impossible and impractical demands, such as ordering Reed to infiltrate institutions that he believes are impervious to subversion. As he later remarks, “You know, I can argue with cops, I can fight with generals. I can’t deal with a bureaucrat.”
Reed reunites with Emma Goldman, who had been deported to Russia during the Red Scare (although she was never a Communist, she was an anarchist). Goldman has become completely disillusioned with the Bolsheviks:
Jack, I think we have to face it. The dream that we had is dying in Russia. If Bolshevism means the peasants taking the land, the workers taking the factories, Russia’s one place where there’s no Bolshevism. . . . The Soviets have no more local autonomy. The central state has all the power. All the power is in the hands of a few men and they are destroying the revolution. They are destroying any hope of real communism in Russia. They’re putting people like me in jail. My understanding of revolution is not a continual extermination of political dissenters, and I want no part of it. Every single newspaper’s been shut down or taken over by the party. Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does that end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution?
I must say that I had some sympathy for Emma Goldman here. I can relate to her situation, having seen the 2016 dream of Trump and the Alt Right crumble and turn to dust. It’s not a good feeling — and the dream of 2016 didn’t go nearly as badly as the dream of 1917.
Reed, however, is still not ready to let go, and keeps making excuses for the Bolsheviks. When Goldman tells him of the four million people who died the previous year, Reed answers:
They died because of a French, British, and American blockade that cut off all food and medical supplies and because counter-revolutionaries have sabotaged the factories and the railroads and the telephones, and because the people — the poor, ignorant, superstitious, illiterate people — are trying to run things themselves, just as you always said that they should, but they don’t know how to run them yet. Did you really think things would work right away? Did you really expect social transformation to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war and we gotta fight it like we fight a war, with discipline, with terror, with firing squads, or we just give it up.
Goldman counters, “Those four million people didn’t die fighting a war. They died from a system that cannot work!”
Reed ends up being sent to Baku to attend the Congress of the Peoples of the East. There, he gives a speech to a crowd of Muslims that is translated by an interpreter. The speech receives a rapturous response. However, Reed learns that the Bolsheviks mistranslated his speech, and that the interpreter told them the revolution is a holy war against Western infidels, when what Reed actually said was that it is a class war.
Reed is furious and chews out Zinoviev on the train ride back to Moscow. Zinoviev tells Reed that he altered his speech for the sake of utility and questions Reed’s loyalty for objecting. Reed is having none of it:
Zinoviev, you don’t think a man can be an individual and be true to the collective, or speak for his own country and the international at the same time, or love his wife and still be faithful to the revolution! You don’t have a self to give! When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him. And when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution! Revolution is dissent! You don’t rewrite what I write!
This scene is a testament to Reed’s narcissism. Reed was able to casually shrug off millions of deaths, but what really blackpilled him on the revolution was when they edited his speech.
Reed returns to Russia, where Louise is waiting for him, but by now Reed’s health is failing badly. There is a scene near the end where Reed is in bed with Louise by his side, and they talk about returning to America together. Louise once again asks, “What as?” and Reed answers, “As comrades.” He dies shortly afterwards.
It’s a good movie. Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson both give magnificent performances. Even Warren Beatty, with his infinitely punchable face, gives a very strong performance
Flaws can be found. This movie takes a lot of creative liberties with the historical facts. One notable thing is that all the actors are much older than the people they are portraying. When John Reed met Louise Bryan in December 1915, Reed was 28, Eugene O’Neill was 27, and Louise Bryant had just turned 30. However, when Reds began filming in 1979, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were both 42 and Diane Keaton was 33. If the movie had cast actors who were closer in age to the people they were playing, it would have been a very different movie. Their political beliefs and personal failings could then have been seen as a reflection of their youthful naïveté.
Still, doing that would have made the movie a less gripping drama, and from Beatty’s point of view, less effective as propaganda. The film is an odd mix of pro- and anti-Communist messages. In the end, the message boils down to, “Real Communism has never been tried.”
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