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"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 instead of sex."—Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton)
It was a different sort of time, one in which idealism could be sincere and not tempered by cynicism. People believed. You might think of it now as a little naïve, especially after all that happened in later years. But when the Russian Revolution happened, they believed.
One of those true believers was John Reed.
Facts of the Case
John "Jack" Reed (Warren Beatty) is in love with adventure almost as much as he is in love with himself. He chases danger as one might chase a coy mistress, and his devotion is strong. His resentment is also strong: he might rush into war, but he sees war as a tool for the profit of others.
Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) has no love for provincialism. She believes in the power of women and art. She and Reed, who appears to us in the film fully-formed, meet over an interview where he spouts his opinions on war profiteering, birth control, class subjugation, and other liberal causes. She falls for him immediately. He is miles away from her stuffy dentist husband. But she knows how to appeal to Reed's vanity and libido—she teases him until he is under her thumb. For Reed, freedom is a set of abstract policy positions. For Louise, it is her ability to get Reed's pants off.
But when the October Revolution puts the Bolsheviks in charge of Russia, Jack and Louise see a wonderful future in store for the world. We all know how well that is going to work out.
Reds is the best Eurocentric account of the grand age of Soviet idealism. David Lean's Doctor Zhivago is better known of course, but for all that film's beautiful photography, both its approach to the complex politics of the age and the characters at the heart of its romance are shallow. Lara is a pretty thing mooned over by an ineffectual poet who never does much the whole movie. The bad guys are much, much more interesting. And the Revolution? Merely an impediment to the lovers' snowblown romance.
But Lean's film was also made in the 1960s, when approaching Soviet politics with any candor was probably too much of a risk. By 1981, we had moved through the age of détente. America, post-Vietnam, was more introspective and less gung-ho about its ideological purity. (At least until Reagan would make his "evil empire" speech the following year, giving the Cold War one last gasp before Glasnost.) Reds shows a time when being a socialist was a sign you were a hopeful, politically engaged person, not a raving ideologue. It was a time when a guy like Jack Reed could be a hero, merely by standing up and announcing his support for the workers of the world.
And in the beginning, it was all about just standing up to be counted. Reed takes Bryant to Greenwich Village, where they fall in with intellectual radicals like Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Eugene O'Neill (a brooding Jack Nicholson). They party, and they talk. And talk. In fact, they spend the first half of the movie largely talking, partying, and sleeping around. These are middle-class dilettantes who have only heard about war. Of course, this is pretty much how most revolutions work, isn't it? They talk about the "people," but the ones who talk always can afford to spend a lot of time talking. For Reed's crowd, even their sexual escapades are covered up by speeches about "free love."
What makes Reds work for that first half, with all the talking, is that we believe in these people and their muddled efforts to make sense of their desires. Keaton and Beatty have good chemistry, playing loose and natural. The film could play their romance as sentiment, but from the first, these are two people who act on their sexual tension—by having sex. This may seem obvious, but consider how most Hollywood epics play toward abstract, higher love. Actors in epics are pretty because they must be. But Warren Beatty has always been canny enough to play with the audience's perception that he is a shallow pretty boy. Reed's sex appeal serves him well, but this is a party boy who wants to be taken seriously for his mind. Beatty though never paints John Reed as a flawless hero. Keaton never plays Bryant as a "boring, clinging, miserable little wife" nor as a relentless feminist paragon. He wants to be taken "seriously;" she struggles with what it means to be serious. Is it political commitment at the expense of the personal? (And how many men want her under the banner of "free love?) Is it personal commitment (love, perhaps) even though her politics say that is not ideologically proper?
In Zhivago, the Revolution was, as I noted earlier, an impediment. In Reds, the Revolution is crucial. Its call for collectivization, the need for mass action, runs counter to individual success and selfish, romantic desire. Can Reed and Bryant be great artists and great lovers—and great revolutionaries at the same time? The film's second half tries to work through this question, as Reed, dissatisfied with the inertia of America's socialists, runs off to Russia to witness the October Revolution. But just as love is never perfect, the glorious new socialist state turns out to be a bit of a wash, with Kerensky failing to straighten things out and the Bolsheviks promising miracles (and we all know how that would turn out). Reed goes from reporter to agitator, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the struggle—probably because at this point in the film he is not distracted by bedhopping. Reed and Bryant are in love with each other and in love with the Revolution (they even make love as the "Internationale" plays).
It all looks too good to be true. The real John Reed, known popularly as the author of Ten Days That Shook the World and as the only American buried in the Kremlin as a hero of the revolution, was a complicated man, a "stirrer-up of people" as one friend recalls. Beatty insists we remember the true story behind this, as he works into story the documentary testimony of real surviving "witnesses" who knew Reed and Bryant, some of whom (like Henry Miller and George Jessel) are notable in their own right—and some of whom disagree strongly with Reed's politics. This works to defuse some of the melodrama. It is the opposite of Zhivago the poet (not that we ever hear his poetry): this is Reed the journalist, filtered through Beatty the documentary recorder. There is a concerted effort here to work against the usual "epic romance" clichés—at least much of the time. Instead of lush romantic music, we get tinkly period-style music from Stephen Sondheim. Of course, this is still Hollywood, so the stars are beautiful and the photography sweeping.
Vittorio Storaro photographs all this with warmth and a misty feeling of nostalgia. (Indeed, there seems to be a lot of mist in this movie.) Beatty and Keaton are made luminous, star-crossed lovers raising their fists in righteous defiance. The two-disc DVD serves the film well: the muted color schemes (browns on browns on browns) still look clear in the shadowy lighting. I noted a little jitter in the beginning of the film, but everything else looks great. The crisp 5.1 audio mix does not extend the sound field out much, since most of the audio trickery in the film consists of verbal chatter.
After the intermission (Reds still trying to compete with David Lean here), the film meanders. Back in the United States, the film pads with witness interviews while Reed and Beatty play house, waiting for the next plot turn. There is a lot of political discussion over how to create a revolution in the United States—but all this talking does not amount to much drama. I suppose the point here is to show how the adrenaline rush of optimism that came with the October Revolution fizzled, how the innocent idealism of American socialists was lost, but non-action doesn't make for an exciting movie. Eventually, Reed chooses the revolution over Bryant, and she is left behind to deal with the American government's backlash against socialism. Meanwhile, Reed watches the promise of the revolution turn sour, as ideology takes over and dissent is crushed. When a Bolshevik flunky (Jerzy Kosinski) tells Reed that his commitment to the party's functional needs is more important than his personal life—"You can never come back to this moment in history!"—we know that the time for optimism has passed. Indeed, it has passed for both the lovers and for the revolution itself.
The only extras for the set are a special trailer for the DVD that touts the film's timeliness in light of recent political events (this makes sense for a marketing department—how else would you sell a film about Soviet politics without a Soviet Union?) and a long documentary, "Witness to Reds." Beatty apparently dislikes commenting on his films, Nicholson is as wry and guarded as ever, and Diane Keaton refused to participate at all, so the effort feels half-hearted on some level. There is a lot of gushing about the actors, even by studio exec Barry Diller. Various participants walk us through the long and rambling production process, hinting that there was a lot of tension on the set, especially over Beatty's controlling manner. Beatty does eventually reveal glimpses into the way he works as an artist, especially his slow, deliberate development process.
Speaking of slow: the film does amble too long and really could get the job done is less time. Beatty seems willing to include every one of his actor friends, as if to counter claims that he is too focused on himself (by way of focusing on Reed). Maybe he feels the need to respond to David Lean by making a movie that could beat up Lean's epics on the playground, a muscular epic. Or he does not want to skimp on the Hollywood friends who all showed up to play in his sandbox, so he has to give them all scenes. Whatever the case, Reds can be a slow-moving experience sometimes, especially when we want to reach out and slap Reed and Bryant and tell them to figure out their relationship already. But Beatty deserves credit for making the film he clearly wants to make, without compromises. And he manages to balance the politics and the character relationships more successfully than many similar epics which end up tipping too far too one end or the other.
I am sure the new DVD release of Reds will cause a few to hold the film up as an example of "out of touch Hollywood liberalism." Of course, they forget that Hollywood is largely run by skittish corporations with a vested interest in catering to middle America. Nor is Reds blindly celebratory of socialism: Beatty even likes to repeat the story occasionally that Ronald Reagan screened the film at the White House and enjoyed it. It is a film about idealism—and no single event in the twentieth century was more saturated in idealism for the entire world than the Russian Revolution. That it rarely lived up to its hype, either for the international socialist community or for the people of the Soviet Union, is another matter. But, as Reds makes quite clear, the transition from hopefulness to ecstasy to reality to disappointment in politics is a lot like love.
Comrade, your trials are just part of the capitalist conspiracy to keep the working man down. Case dismissed.
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