Blog Directory CineVerse: Talking Reds

Talking Reds

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Released in 1981, Reds is one of those “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” historical epics popularized in the 1950s and 1960s. Directed and co-written by Warren Beatty and featuring a star-studded cast including Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Herrmann, Maureen Stapleton, and others, the film tells of the life and endeavors of John Reed—a journalist, activist, and author renowned for documenting the Russian Revolution in his seminal book Ten Days That Shook the World. The narrative follows Reed's radical journalistic pursuits and his immersion into socialist politics, culminating in his voyage to Russia to witness and report on the October Revolution of 1917, and delves into Reed's intimate relationship with fellow activist Louise Bryant, portrayed by Diane Keaton. Spanning several years in the early 20th Century and encapsulating significant historical events, Reds stands as a sprawling drama renowned for its grand scope and ambitious storytelling. The movie earned Beatty considerable accolades, including an Academy Award for Best Director.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, click here.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Reds is the fact that it was made at all, especially at a time when Reagan had come to power, the Soviet Union was still America’s bitter enemy, and Hollywood was dubious about funding bloated and costly passion projects epics like Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now. Beatty’s considerable clout and unswerving belief in this film are primarily responsible for how it came to be made. Consider that Reds is one of the last movies with an intermission, and one of the last of the big-budget, three-hour-plus epics of the previous century, a type of movie that had gone out of fashion years earlier.

It’s also a genre mashup: a romance, a biopic, a period piece, and even a documentary thanks to its inclusion of “witnesses”—real-life talking heads who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, offering commentary on the characters and providing contextual counterpoints to the dramatizations we see. It’s been credited, in fact, as one of the best modern docudramas for this reason.

Beatty’s directorial choices are interesting: He weaves in the testimonies of these witnesses throughout the film, having them serve almost as introducers of new chapters within the narrative; yet, he never names them. Beatty also has a penchant for abruptly cutting away from a shot or scene, often refusing to provide closure to a particular sequence—such as when Reed runs from the train away from enemy fire. And rather than provide a soup-to-nuts account of Reed’s major life highlights, we are often given snapshots and brief snatches of an event, speech, or occurrence.

The film is divided into two sections, cleaved by the intermission. Part one plays more like a honeymoon and often ecstatic romantic and political coupling of characters, ending with exhilaration—for Reed and Bryant—of the Russian Revolution. Part two depicts trouble in paradise, as we witness arguments between Reed and Bryant and Reed and his fellow socialists, and observe the fraying of the optimism and idealism of Reed and other true believers who learn the hard way that communism has consequences.

Fortunately, Beatty navigates these controversial political waters deftly, being careful not to over-romanticize the allure of socialism/communism, presenting its promises and pitfalls in fairly equal measure. He embodies Reed as a flawed human being, as well.

At its core, Reds is a study of a personal relationship under pressure, and therefore, is regarded by many as more of a love story than a historical/political drama. Fascinatingly, Beatty and Keaton were a romantic couple during this production, and the filming put a major strain on their relationship.

That element of private tension, manifested in the performances, speaks to one of the film’s key themes: the toll a public/professional life takes on your private affairs. Reds is also about the risks and rewards of passionate idealism and commitment to a political cause. This biopic of Reed depicts his spirited support of communism and the lengths to which he was willing to advance it, ultimately dying young as a consequence of his tireless work ethic.

Perhaps most importantly, Reds is a treatise on how love grows and matures with time. Reed and Bryant’s on-again/off-again romance and eventual marriage are continually tested, but their unshakable love and bonds of affection prove stronger as the story proceeds to its climax. Even though Bryant has an affair with playwright Eugene O’Neill, she returns to Reed and stays faithful to him following the end of the tryst.

Reds espouses a carpe diem manifesto, as well, stressing the importance of seizing the moment and recognizing a seismic but fleeting event in history that you can be a part of by acting quickly, decisively, and intrepidly.

Reds also stands as a cautionary tale about disillusionment and the consequences of overinvesting in an unproven system of beliefs and unvetted political cause. Emma Goldman, Louise Bryant, and, to a lesser extent diehard believer Reed eventually realize that the idealistic Bolshevik revolution in Russia and its high aims have been co-opted by a relatively small group of soulless communist bureaucrats who defend their denial of human rights as good for the party. Goldman says: “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? Nothing works. Four million people died last year. Not from fighting a war. They died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights.” Reed responds: “It’s not happening the way we thought it would.” 

Similar works

  • Historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Gone With the Wind, Gandhi, and The Last Emperor
  • Controversial big-budget Hollywood risks like Heaven’s Gate and Apocalypse Now
  • Films about journalists or writers covering wars, revolutions, and social upheavals like The Year of Living Dangerously, The Killing Fields, Salvador, and Hemingway & Gellhorn

Other films directed by Warren Beatty

  • Heaven Can Wait (co-directed)
  • Dick Tracy
  • Bulworth
  • Rules Don’t Apply

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP