- Movie Rating -

Reds (1981)

| December 4, 1981

This will sound a little odd, but John Reed represents the kind of writer that I aspire to be – dashing, passionate, sure of himself, endearingly arrogant, angry at the state of the world and never one to let someone else correct or alter what he wrote.  Okay . . . so maybe I am just little like John Reed but my work doesn’t come close to ringing with the kind of fiery passion that Reed would put into his best work.  I think that he is to be admired even if I don’t necessarily admire his politics.

I can certainly see what Warren Beatty saw in Reed, why he wanted to make a movie about him, and why he would want to play him.  Here is a man from Portland who stood at the precipice of events that would shatter the grand illusion, the accepted notions about war and politics in the 20th century that would be obliterated by The Great War and by the rise of the world’s first Communist State.  The October Revolution would yield his most famous work, “Ten Days That Shook the World”, a first-hand account of the 1917 uprising.  Sadly, it was his peak. 

Nothing in the next three remaining years of his life seemed to go right.  As the Communist Party grew, he became embroiled in in-fighting between the American Communist Party (Reed was himself a Communist) and the new Socialist Party both of whom he firmly believed had lost sight of what they were suppose to stand for.  He went back to Moscow where his health declined due to kidney failure and tuberculosis (at the time uncurable). He died in 1920 at the age of 32 and is the first of three American interred within the walls of the Kremlin, the others being labor organizer Bill Haywood and Communist Party USA founder Charles Ruthenberg.

I saw Reds for the first time a few years ago, knowing a bit more about John Reed than the average bear and what stuns me about the film is the passion with which Beatty plays him.  I have no idea if his performance mirrors the real thing but it made me passionate to want to be the kind of writer that made Reed so well-known.  He’s always full of energy, like a man who has had too many cups of coffee. When he talks, you sense that he has too many words that are generated so fast in his brain that his mouth can’t keep up.  He’s a man of ideals and of worldly knowledge.  I got a great deal of this from Beatty’s performance.

I wish I could feel the same for Beatty’s skills as a filmmaker.  He not only stars in Reds but he also wrote it, produced it and directed it.  I am not passionate about this movie.  It’s too disjointed, often very vague and sometimes cuts scenes short just as they are getting interesting. 

The narrative structure is kind of interesting.  The narrative is bound by a series of short interviews with elders who knew the real John Reed and tell small anecdotes about him.  The point is that all of the witnesses see different sides of the man but no one can ever fully get a grip on who he really was as a whole. That’s fine. I like that Citizen Kane style witness testimony but I would wish for a little more consistency and certainly a much better job within the editing.  That way the two parallel stories that Beatty is trying to tell would have more cohesion.  One one side is his involvement in the politics of the time, and on the other is his passionate love affair with feminist writer Louis Bryant (Diane Keaton).

Given the running time, I think the movie deals more with his love affair with Bryant, a socialist who becomes a radical feminist and uses her writing as a means of expressing herself in ways that she isn’t allow to do in her private life.

Louise brings something out in Reed, a certain amount of romantic passion and energy that he isn’t able to express except through his writing.  She gets caught up in the Greenwich Villag society of left-wing artists and intellectuals including Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson).  But it is Reed that she falls in love with.  Rejecting him at first as just another paternal handcuff, she begins to see him for what he is.  He knows the world.  He sees history happening before his eyes and enjoys getting swept up in the history before him. Meeting Bryant, the movie believes, gave him a partner to join him in the front-row seats of history.  And yes, their love story is passionate, particularly a montage in which they are in Russian literally in the middle of the revolution.

Yet, again, I find a movie that is at odds with itself.  The parallel stories don’t mesh very well.  Mixing the romance of Reed and Bryant with the intrigue of the political climate of the times is difficult and you can often see the movie’s tone having to waffle back and forth as Beatty tries to deal with both.  It makes for a very messy narrative structure made all the worse by some very bad editing choices.  It destracts and derails the narrative structure.  I often have to play catch-up in order to get back into whichever story the movie is dealing with.

But even with those flaws, I felt that I got to know a little about Reed.  I felt that I got caught up in his passion about the changes that he wanted to see happen in the world and his eagerness to write about them.  I was at arm’s-length from him personally, but I can certainly feel what he was as a writer, as a lover and as a man who stubbornly stuck to what he believed in.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized