…and I can safely say that it deserves it’s status as a modern American classic.
Released on December 4, 1981, by Paramount Pictures, Reds was released to widespread critical acclaim in the United States, which is rather surprising considering its subject matter. The film stars Warren Beatty (who also directed, produced, and wrote the film) as John Reed, a journalist who is famous for his socialist beliefs and for writing Ten Days That Shook the World, which chronicles his first-hand experience of the October Revolution of 1917 that turned Russia into a Communist state. The fact that the film features an honest portrait of leftist politics and still managed to win three Academy Awards (out of twelve nominations!) in the same year that the notoriously anti-communist Ronald Reagan was elected president almost boggles the mind. Although even he was a fan of the film, so… maybe there is something here for everybody.
The film is divided into two acts and covers the last four or five years of Reed’s life. The first act covers his meeting with Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton) in Portland, their time spent in New York City’s Greenwich Village with many other leftists and bohemians of the day, Bryant’s affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson), Reed’s growing frustration with America’s anti-communist practices as it enters World War I, and his and Bryant’s traveling to Russia and witnessing the Bolshevik revolt firsthand.
The second act shows Reed as his life falls apart in the wake of Ten Days… publishing. He tries and fails to introduce the spirit of revolution to the United States, causes the Communist Party to split in two, is deported to Russia with the increasingly authoritarian Bolshevik leaders stripping more and more freedom away from the people they swore they would lift up, and finally dies of typhus in a Russian hospital aged only thirty-two as Bryant tries and fails to nurse him back to health.
One of the most unique features of this film is the use of “witnesses.” That is, talking head-style interviews with people who actually experienced the events dramatized in the film. Some of these individuals include radical pacifist Scott Nearing, author Dorothy Frooks, muckraker George Seldes, ACLU co-founder Roger Nash Baldwin, and Tropic of Cancer/Tropic of Capricorn author Henry Miller. These interviews, which Beatty began recording about a decade before the film was released, really helped give the film a unique character, as the “witnesses” provide a true connection with the actual events that a lot of other historical films lack.
Of course, everything surrounding them is great as well. All of the actors were excellent. Beatty, Keaton, and Nicholson all received Oscar nods. The only actor who actually won, though, was Maureen Stapleton, who, despite her rather limited screen time, shines as the great anarchist activist Emma Goldman. Indeed, probably my favorite part of the film was her argument with Reed over the Bolshevik government’s legitimacy. She argues that the Bolsheviks have destroyed any chance of a real socialist government by centralizing power in the hands of a few and murdering anyone who protests. Reed argues that centralization is necessary because Russia’s infrastructure is not modernized enough, and its peasant population too uneducated to run things for themselves. Given my own anarchist leanings, that fact that there were areas of the Soviet Union that were successfully run on anarchist principles for a short time (like the Free Territory of Machnovia in Ukraine), and how the Soviet Union would eventually turn out, I’m gonna have to side with Goldman on this one.
The script also does a great job of portraying not just Reed’s life, with his strengths as well as his faults, but also gives us an amazing portrait of life in the WWI era. The costumes and set design really made Beatty, Keaton, and company really feel as if they had literally stepped into the late 1910s. And despite the three hour and fifteen-minute runtime, the film really didn’t feel unnecessarily padded in any way. I did tend to tune out a little bit during some of the more talky scenes, but that’s probably more because of my autistic brain needing visual stimulation than any fault on the film’s part.
Overall, I can definitely see why this film is so highly rated even in a country as notoriously hostile to leftist politics as my own. I feel its sympathetic portrayal of America’s communist underground is especially needed today as the faults of the capitalist system America was built on continues to be laid bare. Which makes it somewhat ironic that I watched it on Amazon Prime, which is owned by a guy who is practically Lex Luthor in all but name. But yeah, especially if you are a leftist or interested in leftist politics, then, by all means, check this film out. If you hate leftists with the same burning passion that I hate the Trump administration, then still check this film out. And I’m giving this one a 9/10.