Reds (1981) – Review by Stanley Kauffmann

A radical American journalist becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia, and hopes to bring its spirit and idealism to the United States.
Reds (1981)

by Stanley Kauffmann

Reds is both an accurate and a possibly misleading title. It’s accurate because the two leading characters devote much of what we see of their lives to Communist activities. It’s possibly misleading because the focus is on the people, not the activities. This is not, in essence or intent, a political work; it is biographical. Solanas’s Hour of the Furnaces, Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Wajda’s Man of Marble are political films, which posit and explore political questions, then strongly support particular action about them: Reds is a patently different order of work. The people in it are politically inspired, but their convictions are explored only sufficiently to validate them. The film concentrates on the beings who gave themselves to certain issues, rather than the issues themselves. A somewhat large analogy: Reds is to communism and the Bolshevik revolution what Hamlet is to Danish foreign policy: the work is inconceivable without its political context, but context is what the politics remains.

All this by way of explanation, not indictment. What Reds sets out to do, it does-in a number of ways—with power. Warren Beatty is the name with which comment must begin. Beatty produced Reds, collaborated on the screenplay (with the English playwright Trevor ‘Griffiths), directed, and plays the leading male role. If Reds were not as good as it is, those facts about a three-and-a-half-hour film would still be impressive in terms of energy. But Reds surges past statistical praise—and past the defects that I’ll note. This film about John Reed and Louise Bryant is extraordinarily stirring.

When I reviewed a biography of Reed in The New Republic (November 4, 1967), I began with a summary of his life and said, “The story might have been contrived by a clever popular novelist.” Reds proves that my term was wrong: as Beatty presents it, the story might have been written by F. Scott Fitzgerald if Fitzgerald had ever developed the political sense that Edmund Wilson tried to inculcate in him. Not just the period but the flavor, the hurts and mendings, the golden yearning are fundamental Fitzgerald. Reds begins in 1915 when Reed is twenty-eight, five years out of Harvard, has already been a war correspondent in Mexico and Europe, has written a book of poems in Greenwich Village, has been the lover and companion of Mabel Dodge. He visits his native city of Portland, Oregon, where he meets Louise Bryant, then twenty-one and married to a dentist. The events of his life before their meeting are barely sketched: but to deal with only Reed’s last five years, the picture needs every moment of the time it takes. It splashes through the roaring social and political currents of the day; it treats radical clashes as the hero’s personal challenge; and (a true Fitzgerald theme) it shows the American hero’s face turned often toward Europe—in Reed’s case, toward European intellectual and ideological tradition, with even a hint of envy for the European miseries that had ultimately produced revolution.
To situate the film historically, Beatty has interwoven bits from interviews with Witnesses (his term), people who were contemporaries of Reed and Bryant, some of whom knew one or both. Always the Witnesses are shown against a black background, so that they seem revenants, suspended in time. None of these speakers is identified, which was a mistake, I think: each could have been tagged on first appearance. I recognized some: Dora Russell, Rebecca West, Scott Nearing and—deceased since the filming—Roger Baldwin, Arthur Mayer, Henry Miller, George Jessel. (He comments on popular music.) But I’d like to have known who all of them were.

Still the device helps: the Reed-Bryant story, private and political, is so wildly dramatic that these occasional comments act both as ballast and support. Louise and Jack become lovers in Portland: she follows him to New York, into his radical political and journalistic life-which featured antiwar activity—and she pursues a journalistic career of her own. They go to Provincetown where, though she loves Jack and marries him, she has an affair with the infatuated Eugene O’Neill. She and Jack quarrel; in June of 1917 she goes to France as a war correspondent. Jack finds her in France, persuades her to come with him to the “real story” in Russia; they witness the “ten days that shook the world”; they come home where he writes an eyewitness account. (No book ever had a truer title.) Then, after a split within the U. S. Communist ranks, Jack returns to Russia—with great difficulty-in 1919 to represent his group’s interests in the plans for world revolution. He deals particularly with Grigory Zinoviev; accompanies Zinoviev and other functionaries on a railway trip through White-held territory to a conference in Baku; is caught in battle with the Whites on his return trip; is reunited with Louise who has followed him to Russia; and he dies there of typhus in 1920. The film omits his interment under the Kremlin wall, though this is mentioned earlier by one of the Witnesses.

There’s some material about Reed’s possible disillusion with the Soviets before his death, or at least some fluctuation. Fourteen years ago, my review of the Reed biography brought me a letter from a ninety-two-year-old Portland woman named Elizabeth Olsen who had known Louise well and wrote: “It is very difficult for me to believe that Jack recanted . . . [Louise and Jack] were romanticists but surely shrewd enough to realize there had to be a practical side to this world-shaking venture.” I take this to mean that Olsen thought the Reeds would have foreseen some tempering of pure principle by the hard facts of governing. But according to Max Eastman and others, Louise said that Jack had become disheartened by Soviet behavior, that she had “to bolster up his morale.” Because her words don’t come to us through impartial people, the question of Jack’s last beliefs will probably remain open. The film, rightly, leaves it that way.

The first, longer section of Reds (before intermission), ending with the ten days in Petrograd, is about two lovers whose personal life is stormy and whose public life is increasingly bound up with radical politics. The second section is about two people in political life—especially the man—who are lovers. This transition is conveyed by the finish of the first section. Magnificent shots of the Petrograd masses marching up a wide street, carrying banners and singing the “Internationale,” are intercut with shots of Jack and Louise making love in their Petrograd apartment while the march is going on. This juxtaposition seemed to me quite the opposite of cheap or sensational: it was emotionally and dramatically just, and it prepared for the shift of emphasis in Part Two.

I want to praise so much of Reds that I must get my objections out of the way. Chief is the choice of cinematographer. Vittorio Storaro, possibly selected for his work on Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Strategem, The Conformist, and 1900, helped to make those political pictures look like confectionery. Perhaps Beatty wanted to underscore that his two leading characters were “romanticists,” but the romantic colorings don’t stop with them. Everything looks a bit too lush, and this hampers the historicity that Beatty achieves so well in other ways.

Jack Nicholson, as Eugene O’Neill, is Jack Nicholson. His role is written blandly, without individuation, and Nicholson does nothing to supply colors—he just floats through. He’s too healthy-looking, anyway, for the gaunt O’Neill.

Maureen Stapleton is Emma Goldman—which is a difficult sentence to type. No screenplay could do real justice to Goldman without centering on her, but, in proportion, she’s moderately well drawn in this script. Then the role of this Lithuanian-Jewish anarchist, this glowing battleship of a woman, was given to an Irish’American sentimentalist who seems to have trouble with long words.

Some characters have been snipped to near anonymity, presumably in the film editing. Gene Hackman’s role as a labor editor is so reduced that it’s now overinhabited by this good actor. Max Eastman and Floyd Dell are just names pinned on some actors who pass through. Paul Sorvino is arresting as Louis Fraina, the Italian-born leader of the splinter U.S. Communist group, but the editing leaves unexplained how he, too, got to Moscow in 1919 and was reconciled with Reed. And the success of Reed’s book in the U.S., which stood him in good stead in Russia, is not even mentioned.

Beatty commits cutenesses. The Reeds have a dog that keeps trying to get into their bedroom when they make love. In their Petrograd apartment, Jack keeps hitting his head on the low chandelier. When Jack and Louise embrace on the train platform after his return from Baku, marshmallow music—by Stephen Sondheim—bloats the soundtrack. Near the end, when Louise goes down the hospital hall to get water for her sick husband, the tin cup accidentally drops from her hand with a clatter—a pat signal to us that, when she gets back to the room, Jack will be dead.

But much of this immense film is so fine that all these flaws, and others that could be noted, cannot spoil it: they just seem inexplicable, which they would not be in a lesser picture. Begin the praise with Diane Keaton, a special pleasure because unexpected. “Louise was a very beautiful woman,” Elizabeth Olsen wrote me. There’s a certain style in which photographs show that to be true, and in that style, Keaton is beautiful, too—as she is dressed and lighted here. Her look and manner, sexual and mercurial, imperious yet tender, are the ground of Keaton’s performance as the New Woman, a figurative sister of Isadora Duncan, entering the twentieth century with an appetite for every freedom, with an air of a released prisoner’s vengeance for wrongful past confinement. Nothing in Keaton’s previous work prepared me for the fire and determination and fullness with which she lifts this woman into being. Allow for Beatty’s perception of her possibilities, for the help he apparently gave her in direction; it’s Keaton who did it, even triumphing over some bits of mouthy rhetoric that come her way. She is the legendary Louise whom Jack needed. (Evidently Louise needed Jack even more. After a subsequent marriage that failed, she ended with a wretched, drugged, drunken death sixteen years after he died.)

Another acute stroke was the casting of the novelist, Jerzy Kosinski, as Zinoviev. That Kosinski is a resourceful performer is no news to those who have known him in private life. I don’t know that he has ever before done conventional acting, but he does it here, with razor sharpness and an authority that comes from precise knowledge of Soviet atmospherics. Beatty directs all the Soviet political meetings well, but Kosinski’s presence in many of them contributes a wiry dynamics; and he contrasts provocatively with the openness of Reed.

In Reed, Beatty has found himself as an actor-has perhaps found areas of himself that surprised him. Beatty has sometimes done good work in the past, but this performance is on a new plane. He very clearly loves Reed, the entire gifted, egocentric, passionate, foolish, large-spirited, aspiring man. It’s as uncommon as it is wonderful to sense such love in an actor for a character, to see it result in such completeness of creation. Sherwood Anderson said of Reed: “I have never met a man who awakened so much quick affection in me.” I believed this, and a great deal more, of Beatty’s Reed. I wouldn’t equate Beatty as artist with Laurence Olivier; still, Beatty gives here the best self-directed film performance since Olivier’s Henry V.

As director, Beatty has inevitably had models, especially because of his subject. (There’s even a sly reference to Eisenstein’s October—Kerensky on the staircase of the Winter Palace—when Reed goes up those stairs to meet Kerensky.) If Beatty’s directing has the lapses described, if it never shows a marked individual style, it has clarity and control almost all the time. And the large scenes—the political rallies in America, the ten days in Petrograd, the Soviet conclaves, the battle on the Baku line-are swirled out before us with the sweep of a generous dramatic imagination. No doubt Beatty is grateful to his two exceptional editors, Dede Allen and Craig McKay, and he certainly was blessed by the art direction of Richard Sylbert, but warts and all, Beatty made this picture: and it’s a big achievement.

Reds, as noted at the start, is not a revolutionary film. (Anyway, the very term “revolutionary film” is almost an oxymoron. Film is an expensive art; private capital or government subsidy is not often forthcoming for work intended to upset the status quo. With a few exceptions, the famous so-called revolutionary films are not insurrectional, they celebrate revolutions already made: e.g., the work of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov, Riefenstahl, Janscó.) Reds is not politically revolutionary, it’s about two people caught up in revolutionary politics. It doesn’t even ask, let alone answer, basic radical political questions.

But if no one will learn much about politics from this film, Beatty has nonetheless put the fire of two burning lives in it. There is plenty in it about the risks that commitment entails, but it is about commitment. Under the closing credits, one of the Witnesses says: “ ‘Grand things are ahead, worth living and dying for’—he always said that.” It’s not necessary to believe those words completely in order to be moved by them, to want to be moved by them. That’s something.

The New Republic, December 16, 1981


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