Review: Reds (1981)

I avoided the movie Reds (1981) for years because I find both Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty grating. I am not sure just why I feel this way, given that they are good progressives and so am I. There was also its bladder-challenging length (3 hours and 14 minutes), so long that it wisely came with an intermission. Moreover, there was its still controversial subject matter: communism, an ideology that never established a firm foothold in our country.

Frankly, I had forgotten just how old this movie is. I thought it was released in 1985 or so. Its age shows in the youthfulness of its leading characters. Principally all its stars now are sixty or seventy something. Warren Beatty, who played the journalist and socialist Jack Reed, is now 70. Diane Keaton, who played his freethinking and often-abused wife, is 62. Jack Nicholson, who I think is miscast as Eugene O’Neill, is also 70. Twenty-seven years ago though all were in their prime. Warren Beatty had women swooning over him. Diane Keaton was ascending after breakout performances in Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Jack Nicholson was fresh off the set from Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1980 film The Shining.

Clearly, 1980 found Warren Beatty very restless and ready to prove his moxie as a producer, director and writer, as well as an actor. Reds became his canvas. He succeeded on one score: in 1982, he received an Oscar for Best Director for the film. The late Maureen Stapleton also deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as the radical anarchist Emma Goldman. My opinion after finally seeing the movie 27 years later is that Beatty reached for the brass ring a bit too early. Beatty seemed to be channeling David Lean, who directed Dr. Zhivago in 1965. He wanted to prove that he could create a landmark film of the 1980s. The result is a very long film with many worthy attributes as well as some substantial failings.

Where Beatty succeeds is in capturing the atmosphere of the world in the mid to late 1910s. If you want to know what America looked and felt like for your grandmother or great grandmother, see Reds. From its Ragtime music, to the tins of biscuits in the kitchen to the ubiquitous wood burning stoves of the time, Beatty nails the era. He also does a great job of capturing the intellectual energy of the age. As quaint as it seems to us now, at the time socialism appeared to be the cure for a nation that was struggling under capitalism’s oppressive weight. Workers needed few skills and were easily replaced. Much of America lived in wretched poverty while a tiny few like John D. Rockefeller lived in unimaginable opulence.

Labor organizer John Reed (played by Beatty) worked hard to draw attention to these issues as a journalist. Eventually though his life became consumed by the socialist and communist movements. His life also became entangled with a free spirited woman from Portland, Oregon (Louise Bryant, played by Keaton). In a time before women even had the right to vote, she was advocating ideas like free love. Bryant and Reed discover that their lofty ideals rarely worked in the real world of human relationships. Despite their enlightened attitudes, they too discover they can be jealous and possessive people.

In their time, Greenwich Village was the same center of progressive thought that it is today. Living there, Bryant and Reed became immersed in the gifted artists and intellectuals of the age. Among these are Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson) and Emma Goldman, the radical feminist. Goldman promoted not only workers’ rights, but also truly radical notions of the times like labor unions and birth control for women, as well as communism and anarchy as a means for remaking the world. The real energy of the labor movement though was not in America, but in Russia. As we know in 1917, a second Russian revolution toppled the Czar’s regime and resulted in the world’s first communist state. Like moths to a flame, both Reed and Bryant were drawn to the people’s revolution underway in Russia. Arguably, Reed is consumed by it. His passion led to neglecting not only his wife, but also his health. He ends up as something of a missionary promoting world communism.

The movie overflows with passionate people passionately trying to remake the world. Reed is arguably the tip of the socialist spear in America. He also has passionate feelings for Bryant, whom he eventually marries. Their relationship though is very troubled. They become estranged, reconnect and then become estranged again. Then try to find each other in a world torn asunder while half a world apart. Toward the end, the movie becomes predominantly a love story between two complex and passionate people navigating a relationship that frequently careens between toxicity and love.

The movie though does have some serious shortcomings. For one thing it is at least an hour longer than necessary. The movie does not need to take the viewer into endless meetings to understand the socialist and communist movements. Here is where a director less vested in its outcome would have taken out his shears and pruned the movie into a far more digestible size. With complete control over the movie, like many before him, Beatty became myopic. It has the feeling at times like Beatty invited many of his best friends to come and make this movie. Consequently, you occasionally get incongruent castings, such as Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. With Reds, Beatty aspired to make a Citizen Kane. Instead, Reds compares more with some of Orson Wells’s lesser-known movies, such as The Magnificent Ambersons.

Still, Reds is a movie worthy for any fan of the cinema. If it was a shot at the moon, it clearly missed its target. Still, its trajectory was quite lofty. The viewer can count on a long, but mostly interesting ride through a neglected period of our history.

This movie gets 3.0 on my 4.0 scale.

My thanks to my friend Renee Fulton for inviting me over to watch the movie with her.

One response to “Review: Reds (1981)”

  1. I agree with all of your comments. It is interesting trivia to note that John Reed is the only American buried in the Kremlin, although some of Bill Haywood’s ashes were spilled there as well. Also, by the 1930s, there were John Reed Clubs, affiliated with the Communist Party, in nearly all large cities of the United States. While, I didn’t find the movie particularly fun to watch — and it was long — I am glad I watched it. It is interesting to learn a new aspect of American history. I am also looking forward to watching a recent movie of similar length — There Will Be Blood.


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