Reds (1981)

Dir. Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson

When I first started this blog, one of the categories I knew I wanted to include was “Losing Steam,” for movies that began with a rush, reach a fabulous climax, and then peter out for one reason or another. Two movies immediately came to mind for me: Gangs of New York and Reds. I have not used the category all that much; I think I’ve been putting off writing a piece about Reds since I was in high school.

Back when Netflix only sent you discs, I remember dropping some movie my family had gotten and being too lazy to find the remote to skip the previews. One of the previews was for a movie I had never heard of before, called Reds. It looked big. Stuff seemed to be happening all the time. It appeared to have a reasonably interesting story, and it was full of people I’d heard of. This was followed, a couple nights later, by watching AFI’s special about 10 Top 10s in film. Number nine in the “Epic” category was Reds. It seemed like a sign. I put it on the queue. Since then, I have watched the first half of the movie a million times, and watched the back half seven or eight times.

The story concerns an American journalist named John Reed (Beatty). Reed is a communist before anyone appreciated what the word might mean or could mean. He is a philanderer, incredibly arrogant, profoundly talented. It’s the last movie of the ’70s (don’t let that 1981 tag fool you), and Warren Beatty, finally directing, is playing himself. One of my favorite critiques of the movie’s historical accuracy (and on that topic, does anyone with a life care about historical accuracy?) is that John Reed was actually kind of a homely guy; his contemporary and friend, Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann) was the handsome one. Of course, Warren Beatty didn’t go into this to have Edward Herrmann (poor Edward Herrmann, who is not only dead as of this writing, but who had to play up lines that function as scenery rather than coherent thought: “Read Freud! Read Jung! Read Engels! Read Marx!”) play the lead, more librarian than playboy, for the sake of consistency with a history that 99% of his viewers had never known of. It’s a little piece of trivia, but it also tells us most of what we need to know about the picture going in.

What makes Reds different from any other biopic that I can think of is its reliance on “witnesses.” One might infer that historical accuracy is not the endgame of the picture from the casting, but it may be done just as easily from the witnesses, who from the very beginning tell us how little they actually remember. The effect, of course, is very “Memory believes before knowing remembers,” but the first spoken words of the film are, I believe, Scott Nearing’s. (He’s not on screen, but he had a distinctive voice. He was also 98 when the film was released. I’m sure he was interviewed early on, maybe as early as 1971, but he remains the single most wrinkled human being I have ever seen. He looks like he’s been taking Vita-Wonk.) He can’t remember if it was 1913 or 1917. The first person we see on screen, an old woman, tells us that things “go and come,” and that she “might scratch the surface” if she tried. But the focus sharpens, bit by bit. A Harvard classmate of Reed’s says that he had two remarkable, unlikely ambitions: that Reed wanted to be president of his class (“He didn’t know anybody in his class! And nobody knew him!”) and to be a millionaire by age twenty-five. Both seem out of place for an American buried in the Kremlin before Stalin solidified his power, but people change, I guess. One of the several Hamiltons Fish makes the shocking supposition on camera that John Reed’s wife might have been a “Commonist.” It is maybe the only time when one of the Witnesses is treated uncharitably. They roll on, through people who are recognizable through a Google search to people who would be utterly anonymous if they hadn’t happened to have known Reed or Louise Bryant in Portland. Henry Miller – who never knew Reed or Bryant but did know Warren Beatty, and Beatty was mad to get him in the film – drops off bons mots and life lessons (for example, men who try to change the world either a) don’t have any problems of their own or b) are unwilling to face their problems).

Almost exactly five minutes into the movie, while a pointy Witness is talking about how Jack Reed, like all of us are, was a victim of his time and place, we get our first shot of people who are acting as opposed to merely being interviewed. It was never a documentary – most documentaries are not as willing as Reds is to admit to telling the truth of a sensibility rather than telling the truth via facts – but now it feels like a movie. The first shot of Reed is genuinely odd. It literally has nothing else to do with the rest of the film. He is running after a wagon in the midst of explosions and gunfire. He has a sombrero around his neck. Obviously, he hasn’t made it to Russia just yet. The film lets its plot start about thirty seconds later, in Portland, 1915.

Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is a first-wave feminist with all of the subtlety of the typical second-waver. She is married to a respectable dentist (I mean, duh) and flirts with contemporary radical politics in a squalid little apartment. She brings Jack to the little place after he tells the Liberal Club of Portland that World War I is about “profits,” and he proceeds to talk her ear off all night, giving the lecture that – in length, if not in subject matter – that the Liberal Club expected to hear. Jack thinks he’s going to get sex out of this “interview.” Louise doesn’t bite. Jack, upon receiving her entire portfolio, makes a comment about how he was just about to ask if she had anything he could take a look at.

This tension fills their relationship. It exemplifies it. Frequently, when Jack is about to go somewhere for work, whether it’s New York or St. Louis or St. Petersburg, he asks Louise to come with him. “What as?” she’ll ask. She is desperately afraid that her life will be subsumed by his, that his fame and talent will strangle hers. This is, of course, exactly what happens time and again throughout the first half of the movie. She moves to New York City and can’t help but seem vapid in front of Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, who won an Oscar for this part). Emma seems inclined to give her a chance, but Louise’s daffy answers to her questions impugn her practically forever. Even people who want to treat her like she exists, like Max Eastman, don’t know enough about her to actually treat her like people. It is perhaps unsurprising that even though she came to New York as something much closer to Jack’s “paramour” or “concubine” than she might have liked (or, ironically enough, the “turkey” that Jack suggested she come as because it’s almost Thanksgiving, ha-ha), she falls very quickly for someone who speaks devotion to her. No one in this movie believes in marriage, but they sure do believe in monogamy. Like one character says, “You [Louise] and Jack have a lot of middle-class values for two radicals.”

When Jack goes to St. Louis to cover the Democratic convention in 1916, Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) – yes, it’s that Eugene O’Neill – steps in. Jack Reed keeps leaving Louise alone with her work. This dumbfounds Gene, who is, in my mind, Nicholson’s best character; it is fitting that the most important American film actor of the 20th Century plays the most important American playwright of the first half. Crazy Jack Nicholson – the Joker, Jack Torrance, Nathan Jessup – is one of everyone’s favorites. Jack Nicholson toned down can still be dangerous, even if he’s only present in limited action: the proof here is his character in Broadcast News. Nicholson’s star persona exudes a little crazy, a little danger, just by its nature. But nothing about Gene seems dangerous to anyone except himself: the alcoholism is obvious from Nicholson’s first time on screen, and if there is danger in Eugene O’Neill, it is self-directed. The shot of him that I always think of from this movie is after white has been dominant on the screen for thirty, sixty seconds. The beach, the seagulls, the shells, the outfits, the clouds: everything is white, or at least buff or fawn. Then we see Jack Nicholson, walking slowly towards the camera, and everything is blue, a shout-out to Picasso’s Blue Period if there ever was one, while a witness lauds his poetry some and his plays a lot.

It’s a refreshing look at Nicholson, especially for someone raised on fat Nicholson who is a Lakers fan first and that guy from The Departed second and that guy from The King of Marvin Gardens seventy-eighth or so. Gene is so slow-moving and quiet that he’s almost ectothermic. He drawls, like he’s savoring each word the way he savors each mouthful of whiskey. Happily, he has decided to keep his eyebrows for the film. He is deliriously funny: I don’t know if I prefer his deadpan delivery of, “Tell them not to stand behind the Moon” during a rehearsal of a play, or how he critiques Louise’s performance after the fact: “I’d rather you went up in flames than put out a cigarette during a monologue about birth.”  Somewhere along the line he has fallen hard for Louise, despite the critique. She’s wearing blue, the only one out of the whites and off-whites dominating the sartorial scene. Without Jack, whom she has tearfully and wretchedly told that the thing she wants most is to stop needing him, she falls too. She goes from a man who makes her feel terrible about herself to a man who says, chillingly and completely, “If you were mine, I wouldn’t share you with anybody or anything…you know it would feel a lot more like love than being left alone with your work.” She joins him in the blue, naked in the water. When Jack comes back to Provincetown and the Players, she goes back to him. Jack, who saw them together, asks Louise to marry him. Gene, deeply hurt by what he views as her “parlor socialism…learned in the Village,” calls her “a lying Irish whore from Portland” and accuses her of using him “to get Jack Reed to marry you.”

All this begs the question: how serious is Louise? The first half of the movie is the only chance we really get to ascertain that seriousness; she spends the second half of the movie chasing Jack Reed around Finland and the new USSR while he rots in prison and plays representative to the Second World Congress of the Communist International and almost dies of scurvy and goodness knows what else. What are we supposed to make of pretentious comments to George Plimpton, that it’s “impossible to describe” what it is she’s writing about? How about her assertion to Emma that gets her pounded: she writes about “everything, nothing.” She won’t take constructive criticism of her work until she gets to Russia, and she never seems to finish anything; she is a journalist who isn’t writing about anything current. (Frequently, I feel the way she must when Jack wonders aloud why she would write about an art exhibition from three years ago when there are a million contemporary things happening to be discussed. Maybe this post should be about the new Mission Impossible.) And what about Gene’s cutting accusation, that she only fooled around with him to get Jack to stop making a fool out of her? Even the witnesses seem to think of her as flighty or unreliable, whether it’s Hamilton Fish calling her a “Commonist” or an old Portland acquaintance telling the story of how the real Louise Bryant badgered her into giving up an expensive coat.

Yet I never get the sense from this movie that Louise gets a fair chance at being the revolutionary writer that she wants to be. First of all, she’s clearly not stupid. When Jack rants through the night during the first meeting about birth control and J.P. Morgan’s loan to England and France, it’s not for her benefit: it’s for the audience’s so they can understand where Jack Reed is coming from. She also understands that one of the risks of going to New York City is getting wrapped up in Jack Reed’s life rather than furthering her career, and when Jack admits to some extramarital funny business, she steps out – once it becomes clear that Jack won’t commit, she won’t stick around to be a hausfrau for him when there is a life of writing to look forward to. It’s also possible that there couldn’t be a worse place for her to try to write than Greenwich Village during World War I. I suppose if you dropped me off in the same neighborhood that Chimamanda Adichie and Eleanor Catton and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Hilary Mantel live in and I was to hang out with them and talk about our writing all the time, I would feel a little stultified myself. When she comes back from Russia after the revolution, she has gained a new measure of sand: she tells off a “God-fearing” senator in a monologue that we ought to tattoo onto Mike Huckabee’s thighs. Diane Keaton does a fair job giving the speech written for her to shout, shaking, at Warren Beatty: he shouldn’t stray from his good writing in America to be a cut-rate infighting politician going to Moscow.

The film is also by and about men: watching her traipse around northern Europe merely gives the audience eyes to look through. Any story of politics is inevitably a story about men; women in the story are relegated to sexual humanizers (Louise Bryant can talk to Anne Stanton) or, if they are political players, they are shunted sideways at will and reappear seemingly at random (Emma Goldman would, I hope, hit it off with Sadie Burke). I seriously doubt that I’m the first person to make this comparison, but Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant is a role as thankless as Annie Hall.

Jack Nicholson’s Gene O’Neill only really does anything for fifteen minutes, tops. Louise is a major force in the top half of the movie and fades away in the back half. The constant is Jack Reed, and the movie about him trying to strike a blow for individuality in the Communist machine is less attractive than the story of how he invades Louise Bryant’s life.

Jack and Louise get married and move out to Croton-on-Hudson. Jack surprises her with a golden retriever puppy. They are bougie. I went to college at a university nicknamed “the Country Club of the South,” and most of my classmates would not dream of becoming as bougie as Jack and Louise do. For goodness’ sake, after a conversation about how to housetrain their dog, Jack mutters the ironic, “We havin’ garlic for dinner, honey?” There should be a laugh track. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their suburban life falls apart rapidly, culminating in a big ol’ argument fiercer than any previous imbroglio. Louise goes to Europe to report on World War I, which America recently got itself mixed up in. Jack gets a kidney taken out and follows her to Europe when he finds out from one of his sometimes editors, Pete (an uncredited Gene Hackman, who is delightful in his two scenes), that she’s been fired. He offers to give her a ticket to St. Petersburg, where it is being rumored that there may actually be a workers’ revolution. She refuses. She shows up on the train. She makes it clear that they will not be man and wife but a pair of mutually supporting journalists.

Jack Reed is the vessel for two lines of thought which are meant to stand in for free thought and individualism. The first he speaks to Pete early on the movie, and then reiterates again to Zinoviev (novelist Jerzy Kosinski): “You don’t rewrite what I write.” The second is usually spoken to him. Julius Gerber (William Daniels, who had the grace not to begin each salutation with a grave, “Mr. Matthews…”) shouts Jack down: “You have no credentials here!” Apparently hanging on to this line of thought even in Russia, Jack doesn’t want to speak in front of a group of poor and socially conscious Russians who are agitating for reform at a rally.

Because everything relates back to The Searchers for me now, the scene is introduced with a shot into the light from a dark doorframe. Instead of Monument Valley waiting outside, we see a group of Russian workers, mostly bearded and in brown, standing about, murmuring loudly. The juxtaposition between the two shots is striking; one is a vision of The Land, and the other is a vision of industry. 

A man who can speak a little English and is willing to translate for him (for, even though I haven’t gotten my sister-in-law’s take on Warren Beatty’s Russian, I’m sure it’s bad) shouts, “Credentials! What credentials? Everyone has credentials here!” The film thus advocates an amusingly auteurist message: the writer’s voice is golden, and the fact that he (not she, sadly) is willing to speak and provide an opinion is credential enough. This message is, (again) amusingly enough, not unlike the message of the real-life Louis Fraina (played in a bit part by Paul Sorvino in the film); Fraina broke with Marxism after becoming aware of the abuses of Stalinism. It’s almost a pity; I would have watched Reds about Louis Fraina, but then Warren Beatty and his ego couldn’t have played him.

The last sequence before the intermission is the glory of the film, a magnificent series of cuts set to music. Jack has just joyously infected the Russian workers with a positive message from America: if the the Russian workers will create a socialist government, the Americans will follow their example. Amidst the cheers, someone starts singing “The Internationale,” which backs the last five minutes or so of the first act. Jack, being literally embraced by anyone and everyone, struggles to work his way back through the crowd to Louise. She seems to get the symbolism. Buoyed up by the swells of popular demonstrations and the speeches of Trotsky and Lenin and the fall of the Winter Palace, the two of them fall in love again. Honestly, I think you could set just about any sequence to the Internationale and it would make me want to cheer. There’s a reason that the animals of Animal Farm are sad to see it go.

In the second half of the movie, the twin themes of the film – freedom of thought and credentials – twine themselves tighter and tighter around Jack Reed. Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, which in real life is a very readable text and highly informative, has been published. Jack is a celebrity, and he shifts more and more to a role that Fraina invited him to back when Jack was grilling Gerber: Jack is becoming a politician, and at a time when A. Mitchell Palmer has decided to make Jack and his fellow politicians verboten. Emma gets deported. The politics, even without the Attorney General’s help, turn sour fast. Jack and Louis, both espousing Bolshevism, become members of the executive committee of the Socialist Party of America. When it seems the left wing is ascendant, they are kicked out of the party by a rightist putsch. Jack is all in favor of going to the upcoming convention and using the rules of his party to claim his seat. Louis is in favor of forming a new political party made up of the left wing of the Socialists (which, naturally, includes Jack); why, he wonders, would we fight the old guard when we are unwanted? Why push the old party to a place where it refuses to go? Stubborn and exhausted, Jack refuses to bend to what (with the benefit of hindsight) is very good sense, and he starts to treat Louise like his wife instead of his colleague, which is not great, but he’s also treating his colleagues like dirt. The man who accused Emma Goldman of being “dogmatic” in 1916 is, in Eastman’s words, “religious” in 1919. His tendency to declaim has always been there, but it’s gone from a quiet recollection of the Democratic convention among friends at the beach to a loud pontificating at virtually any moment. During this period, Louise does a lot less doing and a lot more wistful looking-on, rolling her eyes at the gap that Louis and Jack have put between each other, walking out after Jack is named the Communist Labor Party of America’s delegate to the Comintern.

Maybe part of the problem with the back end of the movie is that it resorts to monologues far too often, and too many of those monologues bear a depressingly strong resemblance to “Read Engels! Read Marx!” At this point in the film, the discussion of what value the revolution has is put into play over and over again by varying parties with varying temperatures on it. Jack is en fuego. Louise is pretty warm, but definitely short of fuego. Gene is cold. Max Eastman is warm, but not as warm as Louise. Emma is disillusioned, realizing that people like her are getting purged in the new USSR.

Grigory Zinoviev is even more fuego than Jack, and, with the possible exception of O’Neill, the most famous person represented in the film. One of the original Politburo members, he appears at first like a vague eccentric. Louise tries to interview him before the Revolution and comments that “his style is still that of a man in hiding.” We see him next close to an hour later, when Jack is trying to ascertain whether or not the Communist Labor Party of America will get the Comintern’s endorsement. Zinoviev seems distracted, trying to fight off scurvy by eating a lemon (and the peel) and maybe the biggest onion in the history of the world. Unsurprisingly, the two parties are instructed to make one party. Surprisingly, Jack, who guaranteed Louise his return by Christmas, is told that he will be staying on with the Propaganda Bureau until July. Jack protests. Zinoviev, in his first monologue, lambastes this weakness. His peroration: “Comrade Reed, you can always go back to your private responsibilities. So can I. You can never – never – come back to this moment in history.” Zinoviev apologizes. Jack leaves.

Jack is captured and contracts scurvy. His one kidney is presumably suffering; he has already been disobeying his doctor’s orders (we watch him take salt, stay up all night, run around, drink coffee, etc.), and now we find out that he is only eating dried, salted fish. Jack is part of a prisoner exchange: it turns out that Lenin himself is behind it. Jack sends telegrams to Croton-on-Hudson, hoping to hear from Louise. Little does he know that Louise is trying to track him down, trying to smuggle herself to Finland via Norway.

Nothing happens. It is so boring. The movie actually seems to stop.

The film, as it did with the Witnesses, is more than happy to show someone doing something while someone else’s voice sits on top of it. Jack’s persistent telegrams are interwoven with footage of Louise watching caribou race by, or hiding in a barn, or trying to climb uphill through waist-deep snow. We know exactly what’s going on, and it’s a massive weakness – we know that there’s nothing to do but wait, and it’s boring watching Jack do the same. One wonders if Jack’s desperate attempts to contact Louise would be better up front, and only then might we see that Louise has stolen away from New York with Gene’s help, and has struggled to make it as far as she has. This would be more effective, but it would also interrupt the totally chronological plot.

The film doesn’t recover from the grinding halt that the action is brought to. Like Jack Reed, Warren Beatty starts to mess around with a kind of filmmaking that he’s not great at. He’s not exactly William Friedkin, who seems to be at his best when things are moving at lightning speed, but he’s much closer to Friedkin than he is Bela Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky. The Witnesses have less and less to say as Beatty tries to bring a plot to its resolution.

The film begins to move again, like the suddenly literal train of the Revolution, as Jack finds himself rewritten over and over again. Zinoviev and Karl Radek (Jan Triska) resolve that the American Communists must infiltrate and radicalize the American Federation of Labor, which Jack fights tooth and nail and in four different languages. Never sure if he is being translated well or if his meaning is coming across, he digs in. It gets worse when he and the top party members go to Baku in an attempt to influence the majority-Muslim population; he finds out that his speech has been translated – but also rewritten – by Zinoviev. Jack, always a little xenophobic, was already wary of the people who burned a giant effigy of Uncle Sam to greet the Comintern. When he finds out that Zinoviev has rewritten his speech to call for a holy war instead of a class war, he confronts the bureaucrat.

When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him. And when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you kill the Revolution. Revolution is dissent!

Jack’s confrontation ends explosively (because counter-revolutionaries attack the literal train of the Revolution and blow stuff up). It is the culmination of the credentials argument that he began having with Julius Gerber, and had again with his translator in Russia before the Revolution. His concern with credentials – and joy to find out that anyone can speak in the utopian future that he and his like-minded fellows have in their heads – becomes a hatred of them as bureaucratic oligarchy sweeps the Party. He confesses to Emma that the cops he could handle, but the bureaucrats are another animal entirely. Credentials have become the raison d’etre of the Revolution now: he who has more credentials gets to shape the conversation and, more importantly, shapes policy. And as the counter-revolutionaries continue their assault, Jack eyes his chance and runs into the fray. There are no credentials when the bullets fly.

Louise waits for Jack’s train, back in Russia. Jack eventually gets off the train, even though we’re supposed to think he’s dead. They embrace silently, with Stephen Sondheim’s music swelling quietly around them. (Did I mention that Stephen Sondheim did the music? What a weird world we live in.) “Don’t leave me,” Jack says after a moment. “Please don’t leave me.” Jack goes to the hospital, lingers for a minute, and dies while Louise is out of the room, getting something for him. My mother’s review of this movie is not nearly as long as mine: her take is that he was “ungrateful.” It’s hard to disagree with that analysis.

There are only a couple of movies that I like more than Reds. It appeals to most of my film prejudices: biopic, big ol’ ensemble cast, history, social consciousness, epic scale, irony, three hours or more. Unfortunately, as well as those tend to fit together, they also create an almost inescapable bloat for the film as well. The first ninety minutes aren’t perfect, but they are masterful. It feels exciting: there is excitement in the air as the American radicals wait for the Bolsheviks to strike a blow for the international workers’ revolution, and that excitement is mirrored by Louise Bryant’s escape from Portland, dalliance with Gene O’Neill, and violent love affair with Jack Reed. Like a much-awaited event itself, there is only deluge after the fact: waiting for the Revolution is a much more interesting proposition than watching people pick up (and mangle) the pieces.

3 thoughts on “Reds (1981)

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