'Reds' was one of the greatest films of the 80s: Warren Beatty's underappreciated masterpiece is the epic cinematic counter to the Reagan era and a lesson for today's unrest
Warren Beatty had balls.
The bold follow-up to his 1978 box-office smash Heaven Can Wait, Reds, was released in December of 1981, during the Cold War and first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency as tensions began escalating between the United States and the Soviet Union. In mid-December, the communist party leadership of Poland would enact Martial Law to combat political opposition. Reagan privately pled for the Soviets to influence a reversal of course while he publicly imposed sanctions against Poland. Counter to the American jingoism of the Reagan '80s, Reds is steeped in communism and Bolsheviks, with its ideology centered on workers' rights, making it ever prescient to today's gig workers caught in the web of a techno-global corporatist plutocracy. In beautiful brushstrokes, Reds brings to canvas the story of real life journalist and communist activist John 'Jack' Reed (Beatty) as he becomes swept into a romance with like-minded writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and thrust into the Russian Revolution during the volatile era of World War I.
Reds has an infectious, kinetic energy that permeates the screen, even though it’s a period piece shot 40 years ago it feels immediate and immersive, making viewers a front row witness to history. Beatty, Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman and Paul Sorvino, among a host of others in this first-rate cast, including Maureen Stapelton in an Academy Award winning performance, are at the absolute tops of their game. The passionate lovers’ quarrels between Beatty and Keaton (an item at the time of the filming) are, as many couples' fights can be, both intense and hilarious. The dialogue in these romantic cage-matches are especially peppery, as Reed and Bryant fling darts and soapbox over political and journalistic ethics. Adding to the impressive feat of directing Reds and being its leading man, Beatty co-wrote a timeless screenplay brimming with captivating speeches and gallows humor where the audience understands each character's motivations as the script traces everyone's soul in the dusted grit.
In Beatty's acceptance speech for Best Director at the 54th Academy Awards, he was especially gracious to Paramount, Gulf+Western for financing Reds and the Hollywood studio system for granting such creative license and freedom of expression. Beatty was humbled to operate without censorship, although it could be reasoned that a man of his cache in Tinseltown likely enjoyed a certain carte blanche as long as the dollars kept rolling in. He was hopeful that his film would usher in more stories of American socialism and communism. Nearly forty years later, Reds remains certainly the most grandiose studio film to tackle such subject matter and the quintessential anti-capitalist film. Yet it is also one of the best films to emerge out of a decade stockpiled with blockbuster franchises, action heroes, brat-packs and auteur zeniths.
In the award season of 1982, Reds led all films with 12 Oscar nominations and was considered the favorite to take Best Picture. Other nominated films included the classic first installment of the Indiana Jones films, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the joyous pairing of Henry Fonda and Kathleen Hepburn in On Golden Pond, the romantic Burt Lancaster crime drama Atlantic City and what would ultimately upset the awards and nab Best Picture - Chariots of Fire. By all measures the award should've went to Reds or even Raiders, but the types of films awarded for Best Picture by the Academy had begun to shift after Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter won in 1979. In 1980 Kramer vs. Kramer bested both Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz and in '81 Ordinary People won over Raging Bull, as well as Robert Redford earning Best Director over Martin Scorsese.
To suggest that the Academy was awarding less deserving films is not surprising as this continues to be the coda of the institution. Of course, the Academy would bestow its highest honor upon an uplifting story in Chariots of Fire, a tale of determination with an iconic Vangelis score rather than a bleak film about communism that barely recouped its budget. Reds and Chariots of Fire are set in the same era yet tell vastly different stories and the latter was more digestible for the shifting tastes of the 1980s. Helmed by a true renegade, Reds was one of the last artifacts of the New Hollywood era and the jaded, paranoid desperation that was baked into the films of the 1970s as it crashed the party of the '80s in the wrong attire. Step aside Jack Reed and make way for Gandhi.
Beatty would not star in another film until six years later in 1987 with Ishtar, the infamous bomb co-starring Dustin Hoffman beleaguered by studio interference and misogyny towards director Elaine May. In total, Beatty has only been in 7 films in the 39 years since Reds (he was 44 in '81) with a string of respectable releases in the '90s (Dick Tracy, Bugsy, Bulworth) and then an astonishing 15 year gap between Town & Country (2001) and what will likely be his final role in a longtime passion project, the strange yet somewhat charming Howard Hughes bio-pic Rules Don't Apply - which I had to drive 20 miles to watch at an AMC in 2016 as it was released on limited screens that November and ultimately flopped.
By portraying Hughes, Bugsy Siegel and Reed, Beatty's admiration for eccentric American rebels is seared into his filmography. But with Reds, with its robust 195 minutes efficiently paced given the runtime, gorgeously photographed by Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now) with mercury soaked beaches and its celestial winter palace giving Reds the bones of a more permanent installation than historic exhibition, Beatty crafted his magnum opus and one wonders if his subsequent diminishing output was the result of artistic fatigue from reaching this summit. With its arduous production and controversial plot, Reds was a culmination of both physical and celluloid blood, sweat and tears, manifested by a scene where Reed is jailed with fellow war protestors; amidst political chatter Reed, who suffered from kidney disease, develops malaise and stumbles for the urinal, a cellmate looking over his shoulder proclaims: "this one even pisses red!"
As bank robber Clyde Barrow in Bonnie
and Clyde, Beatty romanticized the murderous public enemy, dripping dapper
in a cream bowler and plaid suit as he and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) blitzed
through small towns pillaging the vast, sullen heartland. Arthur Penn's blazing
film helped spark the Easy Rider, Raging Bulls era where Beatty became
one of Hollywood's most daring cinematic outlaws. The last caper of his hot
streak would be Reds, as Beatty's Jack Reed aimed for the ultimate heist:
blowing up the whole damn system.
Reds begins with rolling of opening credits and a ragtime tune playing over a simple font on a black screen, when a faint voice crackles with a foggy recollection of what year it must've been: "Was that in 1913 or 1917? I can't remember now." Thus, we are introduced to "The Witnesses" - a host of players (Henry Miller, Dorothy Frooks, Roger Baldwin, etc.) who were alive in the times of Reed and Bryant, some whom knew them personally. During the course of Reds, we revisit them as they recount those heydays and offer testimonials on the character of Reed and Bryant. "The Witnesses" provide a fourth-wall narration that annotates the events unfolding on-screen as they ruminate over the era's zeitgeist and gossip. With each witness seated in front of a black screen, it gives Reds the authenticity of a Ken Burns documentary - without inducing narcolepsy.
We are introduced to Reed as he sprints onto the screen, running in the sand-soaked battlefields of WWI as a war correspondent. We meet Louis Bryant at an art show where her current husband scolds her for displaying suggestive artwork in which she is the scantily clad model. Soon enough Reed and Bryant first encounter each other at a gathering of the Liberal Club in Portland, where Bryant pines for journalistic advice from the well-regarded Reed. Though Bryant is outside of the gallery, an artist and muse relationship quickly develops between the two as Reed utilizes her infectious passion as a fuselage to catapult him to revolutionary heights.
Shot around the world accumulating millions of feet of film, the case for Reds greatness is in its majestic collisions of romance and revolution, conflict and camaraderie. The love triangle between Reed, Bryant and playwright Eugene O'Neil (Nicholson) is a clash between a relationship of pragmatism (Bryant/O'Neil) or passion (Bryant/Reed), an intersection where O'Neil worships Bryant but Bryant is hypnotized by Reed. A boozing realist, O'Neil scolds Bryant for her and Reed's hypocrisy of fighting for the working class as they maintain their own affluence. Bryant counters to O'Neil that her and Reed have the freedom to do as they wish and anyone afraid of that freedom is afraid of their own emptiness. The tension between the two erupts into a doomed affair, one that doesn't seem to irk Reed the slightest yet leaves O'Neil bitter in the end. O'Neil, masterfully played by Nicholson, represents the jaded practicality of not only romantic relationships but political party - a compromise that Bryant and Reed vehemently reject. Nicholson had just emerged from the grueling marathon shooting of The Shining with Stanley Kubrick and in a remarkable about-face delivers one of his most swift, understated roles in Reds. It was in such marvelously nuanced supporting roles in Reds and Terms of Endearment that Nicholson would shine throughout the 80s before returning to max-Jack as the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman.
Shortly after meeting in Portland, Reed and Bryant settle among the leftist radicals in Greenwich Village. Reed becomes more involved in the socialist movement, traveling to meet with Baltimore laborers who are mistreated by their capitalist employers who label them unskilled, enforcing harsh seven-day workweeks for paltry pay. The fight for unionization and assembly is met with the familiar brutal crackdowns from the iron fist of law enforcement. A ripple begins to form between Reed and Bryant, sensing that her writing is not met with the same acclaim and seriousness as Reed's - who begins to pivot from a pundit to political organizer, much to the dismay of editors wary of the ‘reds ideology’. In the epicenter of the radical movement, everyone harbors their own methodology and measuring stick for how to effect change, with a prophetic Emma Goldman (Stapleton) dismissing Bryant's advocacy of the electoral process, sniping that "voting is the opium of the masses in this country, every four years, you deaden the pain" and that the only impact against the capitalist war machine is made in the streets.
Besieged by romantic and professional envy, Bryant splits from Reed but they are soon reunited in the front lines of the war in Europe as Reed convinces Bryant to follow her East again: this time to Russia where he promises plenty of action; the system is collapsing and ripened for revolution. As they arrive at the border they are confronted with wounded and weary soldiers, the streets of Saint Petersburg swollen with breadlines, their apartment a dusty den of squalor. Yet in joining the stage of speakers at a factory workers rally, Reed quickly discovers that his anti-capitalism ethos and calls for a strike galvanize the Bolsheviks. What follows is one of the grandest sequences in Reds, as a candle clutching crowd marches through the dark night, stopping a startled streetcar operator in his tracks. Lenin takes power and triumph fills the air with celebration pouring into the square. When Reed and Bryant return to the states, Reed begins to churn out his account of the Russian Revolution, which would become his book Ten Days That Shook The World.
While Doctor Zhivago, the other masterpiece regaling the Russian Revolution, is a cinematic ancestor to Reds, Beatty's film also shares aesthetics, lessons and a cast member (Keaton) with The Godfather Part II. Kaye's rousing defiance to Michael Corleone is a warm-up for the bouts she faces with the men in Reds, as Louis Bryant is a feminist firebrand to be reckoned with. As Reed returns to Russia to muster support for the communist party in the United States, he realizes that the socialist system, like capitalism, has become riddled with power hungry bureaucrats - it might as well be the mafia. The Vito Corleone timeline of the Godfather II touches on the era of Jack Reed and in Vito's clashes with the extortionist Don Fanucci, it's emblematic of the capitalist robber barons Reed seeks to destroy. Whether it is the unity of a political party or a crime family, both are susceptible to money, power and respect.
In one exchange back in Russia, a comrade is eating a lemon to, as he explains to Reed, fight off the scurvy. Reed, who ultimately attempts to defect back to the states, passes in Russia of scrub typhus with Bryant at his bedside. That Reed died from what is now an easily curable and rare infection is crudely anti-climactic, he didn't die as a political prisoner or martyr, but from germs. The irony is symbolic of the current struggles and protests of the working class in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. For a contemporary allegory on COVID-19 and capitalism, the potent reference is this year's Best Picture winner, Parasite - a title that is now the most appropriate double entendre for these times. How innocent our world was on February 9, 2020 when South Korean director Bong Joon-ho joyously pumped his Oscar trophy in the air. But shouldn't we have been wiser? Shouldn't we have seen our fate awaiting us? That the Kim's dingy basement dwelling is destroyed in a flood while the Park's sleek compound uphill remains cozy and safe is akin to the unequal dispersion of ravages this unforgiving pandemic has unleashed on the most vulnerable populations of the class system in the United States. When the man hiding in the Park's bunker screams "Respect!", it is a reminder of the disregard for humanity that permeates modern life.
Many in the US government and mainstream press held the same contempt and disdain for Reed that today is reserved for the likes of Edward Snowden. That Reed and Snowden both found a refuge of sorts in Russia is not by chance. The subversive encroachment of the Kremlin into our politics and social fabric has been a feature of American life for the past century. While Snowden sought to reveal the surveillance state, Reed aimed to abolish the apparatus. Beatty's film brilliantly captures Reed's thirst for revolution and the painful reality that once the guard has changed, implementation and practice are infinitely more challenging than ideology and protest. In Bugsy, Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) laments that his business partner-n-crime Bugsy Siegel doesn't care about money; he's a dreamer. In the decades following his death, Siegel's Flamingo Hotel in the Nevada desert would birth the glitzy Las Vegas dream he envisioned. Reed's dream for America was less glamorous: a seat at the table for the working class. 100 years later, what have we awoke to?