“Reds” is Warren Beatty’s biopic on John Reed and Louise Bryant, two people I had never heard of before, but who appear to have been two central characters in the socialist movement in the States in the second decade of the twentieth century. When I say it is Warren Beatty’s movie, I mean it quite literally. He was director, producer, screenwriter and lead actor on the movie. That pretty much makes it his.
John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) meet in Portland, Oregon in 1915. Louise is a suffragist, and a journalist and John is a journalist just returned from the war in France. His reluctance for America to join the war piques Louise’ interest and before they know it, they are having an affair and Louise moves in with John in New York.
From here on the movie follows two tracks. One is the stormful relationship between the two of them. Both are idealists, including free love, and both find it hard to reconcile those ideals with a relationship. I lost count on the number of times they rushed out on each other, only to get reunited. This includes an affair with Gene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson).
The second track is the political and journalist work of Louise and John. What I understand is that John is a journalist for a left-wing newspaper and covering things like labor unions and the political process, first pursuing the anti-war position that Woodrow Wilson got elected on (and then abandoned) and then the socialist parties, which he got more and more involved in. At the time of the Russian revolution, he went to Russia to cover that event and his book about it became something of a bestseller (“Ten Days That Shook the World”). From then on, John is gripped by revolutionary fire and gets himself personally involved in the revolutionary wing of the American socialist party, which in turn splinters into fractional conflict. John returns to Russia to get his branch endorsed by the Russians, but gets stuck there in the ensuing civil war.
Meanwhile, Louise is pursuing her professional career with extensive writing, but except for the opening hour, it is a bit diffuse what she is actually doing and how successful she is at it. In terms of the movie, she increasingly becomes the spouse who is sacrificed on the fire of revolution.
I am a bit vague here because “Reds” suffer from the illness of most such movies. It is supposed to be about the work of these two people, but it seems like the authors (Warren Beatty?) thought that the topic would be way too complicated for its viewers, so it is always reduced to “something socialist” involving workers, progressive thinking and bloody revolution. The story of their professional work seems to have been plenty dramatic and with huge implications for the development of modern United States, but I am left with tons of questions here and the message that I am probably not smart enough to understand it anyway. Instead, the movie fills in a lot of human-interest elements, again a classic, because THAT we will understand. This takes up a lot of space and I am certain that Louise’ affair with Gene is way more important than the articles she wrote and her influence on the suffragist cause. That was sarcasm, by the way.
“Reds” is not a documentary, but Beatty frequently includes statements from people who were there and witnessed what went on. This lends a lot of authenticity to the story and is a nice touch. Tom Hanks did something similar to his “Band of Brother” with the same effect. I definitely liked it, but it was rare that it told me something I did not already get from the movie itself.
This is a very long movie, more than three hours long, and it has a lot of story to tell. I do not mind that, as long as there is a story and the second half is certainly dramatic enough to provide material for it. It is also here we get closest to learning what this is all about, which makes it the best part of the movie, but alas, only in snippets.
The subject matter is interesting, it is a story I never heard before and that alone tickles my interest. I am not particularly political myself, but it is people like these who shape the world, and their stories are worth telling. I just wonder if I would have preferred a documentary.
“Reds” harvested three Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton) and Best Cinematography.