No other movie star in history has used power with such daring and wisdom as Warren Beatty with Reds. This vivid heroic saga — which Beatty not only acted in but also produced, directed and cowrote — brings to life the tumultuous global upheaval that surrounded the First World War. Marxism, feminism, free love: These subjects might have assured box-office success in the late Sixties, when Beatty first considered filming the life of activist reporter John Reed. Releasing this movie in the Reagan Eighties would seem to be professional suicide. But the drama, romance, humor and spectacle of Reds should transcend the conservative miasma of the moment.
Not since Lawrence of Arabia has there been a serious historical movie of this sweep, complexity and intelligence. The events — the violent attempts to organize American labor, the early days of Bohemian Greenwich Village, the Russian Revolution — and the characters, including Reed, Louise Bryant (his wife), Eugene O’Neill and Emma Goldman, are so well integrated that it is impossible to separate the personal from the political. In a sense, Reed and Bryant starred in the social-sexual revolutions of their day. Reed’s coverage of Pancho Villa’s army earned him the title of the American Kipling even before he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, his flashing account of the Bolshevik uprising. Though Louise Bryant eventually became a recognized journalist as well, history remembers her as a woman of mystery who captivated men of genius, including Eugene O’Neill. It is Beatty’s inspiration to treat these two people as stars in the constellations of their culture.
Beatty punctuates that point with a unique device. Thirty-two “witnesses” are interviewed about the life and times of the Reeds, who strove mightily to capture a place in history. But the testimony poignantly illustrates how time has faded the meaning of their existence. These casual, beautifully filmed monologues float in and out of the narrative like poetic commentaries, yet they enable the most uninformed viewer to compose an impressionistic picture of early twentieth-century America.
The key to the film’s success is that Reed and Bryant are bigger than anything anyone says about them. This movie is about people who embody the conflicting drives of an era and are torn apart both by their unresolved personalities and by history. It feels right that these cultural stars of an earlier day should be played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, whose most famous roles (in Shampoo and Annie Hall) epitomize the dynamic uncertainties of our own time.
Judged simply as a solo directorial debut (Beatty’s fluffy Heaven Can Wait was co-directed with Buck Henry), Reds is phenomenally ambitious — and extraordinarily executed. Though Reds does not have the originality to put it in a class with Citizen Kane, it rates very high. As a director, Beatty’s staging and shooting choices are smart, tasteful, even impassioned. As a producer, however, he displays a flair and imagination comparable to Orson Welles’ in his Mercury Theater Days. Like Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, Reds boasts distinguished teamwork:
Co-screenwriter Trevor Griffiths
Though Griffiths shares script credit with Beatty (and others are reported to have contributed), the biggest political speeches have the bristling rhetorical stamp that caused theater critics to deem Griffiths the most fiery English dramatic talent since John Osborne. In Griffiths’ 1970 play, Occupations, a forthright, eloquent political drama, he pitted the tactics and principles of Italian socialist Gramsci, a leader of the factory takeovers in the workers’ uprising of 1920, against a Soviet bureaucrat named Kabak, who was willing to sacrifice Italian workers for the good of the Russian state. Again, in Reds, Griffiths clarifies the differences between idealistic socialists and Soviet bureaucrats, who ruthlessly protect the power achieved by the Bolsheviks in Russia. More important, this movie gives Griffiths his biggest opportunity yet to develop drama dialectically. The movie’s structure is built on points and counterpoints that shift our perceptions of the characters as they change and grow. Beatty and Griffiths give the film’s stirring images sturdy metaphoric underpinnings. The two key shots in the entire film — Reed climbing on a Mexican gun wagon near the beginning and trying to board a Soviet gun wagon near the end — crystallize Reed as a man forever chasing revolution.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro
In Reds, Storaro confirms his standing as the image master of the movies. His sometimes hard-edged, sometimes idyllic and sometimes throwaway style helps express the characters’ oscillations between old-fashioned elegance and rampaging modernity. Some of the cityscapes have the rainy erotic suggestiveness of Steichen’s Flatiron Building photograph, while scenes in Cape Cod, where Reed, Bryant and O’Neill lived and worked with the Provincetown Players, are shot through with the warm sunlight and slate shadows that marked Winslow Homer’s painting of sea and sand. When the Bolshevik revolt explodes, Storaro responds with great lyrical bursts. We see the “masses” as an inexorable historical force able to stop a streetcar in its tracks or topple Kerensky’s compromise government in its Winter Palace.
Editors Dede Allen (co-executive producer) and Craig McKay
Allen, who first gained fame by editing the Beatty-produced Bonnie and Clyde, and McKay, who edited Melvin and Howard, imbue the whole three hours and 20 minutes with a bracing impatience.
Entire sequences use sound and image contrapuntally (just as Russian masters Eisenstein and Pudovkin ordered). Songs as different as the wistful ballad “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard” and “The Internationale” cut through scenes of the writers working, protesting or making love, juxtaposing the incongruities of their lives. In one inspired, mystical moment, an old Russian woman chants a dirge before her icon while a silvery drinking cup — it’s a common man’s chalice — falls to the floor, marking John Reed’s life slipping away at the Christ-like age of 33.
Production designer Richard Sylbert and costume designer Shirley Russell
The film is studded with small masterpieces of trompe l’oeil and period-costume re-creation. One of the great virtues of the production is that the physical splendor never swamps the intellectual topography.
What holds this monumental movie together is the intelligence of Warren Beatty. His problems would seem insurmountable: to anchor an epic production with a character who was an admitted adventurer. “It is only by drifting in the wind,” Reed once wrote, “that I have found myself, and plunged joyously into a new role.” Louise Bryant, too, was a bit of the will-o’-the-wisp; her ambitions were alternately unformed, formed and dashed. But Beatty attacks the problem head-on by seeing his hero and heroine in a compassionate perspective that is as free of illusion as it is flush with sympathy.
For a long time — perhaps too long — we have to wonder whether Louise Bryant is committed to free love, radical writing and Reed, or whether she does everything for effect. Reed, too, often appears as a mere romanticist and even a power-mad politico rather than an idealistic journalist. But the peculiar triumph of the film — and what makes it such an American movie — is that it persuades us that they both grew into the roles they carved out for themselves. They may come from privileged backgrounds, but they’re self-made.
Right from the start, when Bryant meets Reed at the Portland, Oregon, Liberal Club, Beatty and Griffiths clue us in that modern times are bustin’ out all over. Bryant soon propositions Reed with a startling comic directness. In the morning, when Reed asks Bryant to go to New York with him, she demands to know “as what?” She’s got to be taken as an equal, not just as a concubine. All throughout the movie and their lives together, Reed and Bryant feel the pull of contradictory directions: forward to new social-sexual frontiers and back again to old-fashioned stability.
For northwestern innocents like Bryant and Reed, living together in Greenwich Village is like learning to swim in a maelstrom. It’s a floating avant-garde salon, presided over by the unsinkable Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, in a hearty, funny performance). Goldman is a grande dame for the twentieth century — a woman who holds sway over others by being more modern and liberated than anyone else. Every question she poses to Louise Bryant is an intellectual challenge that the Portland girl can’t yet meet. Goldman seems to be saying, “You can’t get by on charm alone with me, dearie….…”
Warren Beatty doesn’t have the oratorical equipment to play Reed as a spellbinder, but he gets around this by selecting his scenes shrewdly and instead projects, without self-consciousness, the boyishness central to Reed’s character. No one can do sheepishness, befuddlement or defensive blowhardiness better than Beatty. His Reed is as tongue-tied in love and domesticity as he’s cocksure in politics and adventure. Beatty makes us see the journalist’s eternal dilemma: as an observer, he is always overshadowed by creative artists like O’Neill and radical activists like Goldman. Paradoxically, once Reed gets imbued with a religious brand of Marxism, he loses his boyish flexibility and kills off his own élan vital.
Diane Keaton, as Louise Bryant, shows an uncanny ability to express vulnerability when she’s being aggressive and belligerent. Indeed, her outbursts are usually signs that she’s been cut to the quick. Bryant constantly challenges herself to experiences and achievements that do not come easily to her personality. Her biggest test is Eugene O’Neill. Their affair exposes her ambivalence about romantic commitment.
O’Neill, played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson, functions as Bohemia’s devil’s advocate. He’s in rebellion against all orthodoxies, whether “reactionary” or “progressive.” And if his own view of human possibilities is limited, he does have the cleansing honesty that makes real progress possible. Nicholson looks relieved at having sharp, astringent dialogue for a change; he doesn’t seem as hyped for a “big” performance as he did in The Shining and The Postman Always Rings Twice. He’s relaxed and slithery, a charming serpent to Louise Bryant’s brave-new-world Eve.
Working with Beatty must make actors (and nonactors like George Plimpton) deliriously happy. Keaton convinces us, as she never has before, that she can play a woman of backbone, and Beatty’s self-effacement is itself almost an act of love. In a cameo as a hard-nosed editor, Gene Hackman stops the show with his joyous, barking bonhomie. Others, like Edward Herrmann’s Max Eastman and Max Wright’s Floyd Dell, register mostly as mysteriously “right” presences, as they might in a good Altman film. Plimpton, as a lecherous magazine editor, carries on with a faintly sepulchral wryness, like the Ghost of Café Society Past.
It’s when the Utopian revolution turns ugly that Reds‘ themes come into focus. The Soviets strive to effect massive change through force of will alone. Shackling together disparate countries in chaotic Comintern committees, forsaking the immediate needs of the people to shore up the State, their liberations turn to tyranny. But as the revolution of the Soviets breaks down, the revolution of Jack and Louise’s relationship — their attempt to be a marriage of equals — finally comes to fruition. At the end, they’re comrades.
It’s not incidental to the politics of the film that John Reed and Louise Bryant are American journalists. Free speech and the right to dissent are at the heart of this movie. In this century, social change in America hasn’t happened because oppressed people altered the means of production, but because they manipulated the means of communication. This movie articulates the search for social progress when most of the nation is hiding behind patriotic platitudes. In this context, Reds might even be called a revolutionary film.