After devoting considerable thought and research to the subject, I’ve concluded that Warren Beatty is an ambivalent socialist. This may come as a shock. Socialists of any stripe are rare in America, perhaps, nowhere more so than in Hollywood.
Beatty’s an unusual man by any measure. A zillionaire Irish-American with Southern-Baptist roots, Beatty’s also among the bravest film artists alive today. His rap song in his later film, Bulworth (1998), with the line “Socialism! Socialism! The one word you can’t say in America today!” ensures his permanent place in my critical pantheon.
However, if leftist political content were the only criterion for film evaluation, there wouldn’t be much reason to bother with movies – neither today, nor back in Ronald Reagan’s first year in power: 1981. That winter, however, saw an exception: Beatty’s much-anticipated film, Reds, was a holiday blockbuster about communists – American communists.
Beatty was no John Wayne: with Bonnie & Clyde(1967) and The Parallax View(1974), he had made films that targeted the youth radicalization of the Sixties. This time, Hollywood’s leading iconoclast had made a picture about John Reed, radical American journalist. Reed’s best-known book, “Ten Days That Shook The World”, was endorsed by Lenin. Along with Trotsky’s 3-volume history, it’s regarded as a definitive account of the Bolshevik ascendancy to power in Russia. Beatty’s subject was a genuine revolutionist (and his rocky marriage to a radical woman) – and he’d cast himself in the lead role.
Beatty’s neither a great director, nor a great actor, but Reds is a trove of political content that you’ll find nowhere else in the American cinema. Aside from his penchant for sentimental slapstick and cute puppies, his screenplay (co-written with playwright Trevor Griffiths) is densely populated with accurately conceived historical characters and moments.
The film starts with interview clips with old-timers – actual contemporaries of John Reed’s – who reminisce about Jack, radical politics, and the subject of memory itself. But before we start to fear we’ve been sold a documentary disguised as a drama, we’re treated to a glimpse of Beatty, as Reed, comically chasing a horse-drawn buckboard through an exploding Zapatista battlefield: Reed loves to be where the action is.
After glimpsing Reed’s future wife, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), at a photo exhibition, frustrated at provincial attitudes towards art, we see Reed – the scion of an influential Portland family – at a Liberal Club banquet, summoned by a jingoist (who has just invoked “patriotism, freedom, our heritage, and a world made safe for democracy”), to speak about his firsthand knowledge of the war in Europe. “What would you say this war’s about, Jack Reed?” Rising, Reed shocks them with the single word, “Profits!” and promptly sits down. The Liberals are stunned, Bryant is enchanted, and Beatty has (some of) us in the palm of his hand.
Reed and Bryant embark on a sexy-funny romance that – in its feminist concern with free love and the oppression of traditional marriage – felt utterly contemporary in 1981, if not now. Beatty sustains a tone that is comic fun – with Bryant’s angry feminism a foil for Reed’s bumbling charm. Scenes with Emma Goldman (Jean Stapleton) and Max Eastman (Edward Herrman) depict familiar tensions – radicals spread thin between the needs of the burgeoning feminist and antiwar movements.
In a year that spawned the execrable Indiana Jones series and the cinematically flaccid Me-Generation primer, Chariots of Fire, Reds had the unexpected audacity to be a “woman’s picture”: the story is told (unevenly) from Bryant’s point of view.
Initially, Louise finds it difficult to maintain her ambivalent hold on the widely-adored Jack while trying to keep up with the hot-brained radical New Yorkers. For many of these passionate members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, winding up in “the slammer” for one’s beliefs was a right of passage that separated committed from dilettante. Big personalities and bigger issues swirl around Bryant until she feels diminished and irrelevant. While Reed takes a stand with a Red-baiting newspaper editor: “Just don’t rewrite what I write!”, Bryant struggles desperately with Jack for her own independence: “I want to stop needing you!”
Reed’s inner circle retires to Cape Cod to explore experimental theatre. Eugene (Jack Nicholson) O’Neill’s melancholy romanticism further challenges Bryant’s grasp on her own identity: hatred of her desire for male approval threatens to tear her apart.
Jack’s departure for a Democratic convention in St. Louis affords O’Neill the opportunity to taunt Louise and Jack’s “freedom” as “parlour socialism”; what Eugene has to offer would “feel a lot more like love than being left alone with your work.” Nicholson plays the part with heavy-lidded, almost sinister conviction – and Bryant promptly begins an affair with him. To O’Neill’s bitter disappointment, Jack asks Louise to marry him, and they become a thoroughly conventional triangle with Eugene the loser.
Hollywood romance? Yes, but addressing a very real predicament for radicals: how to live principled personal lives in a capitalist patriarchy? Many activists attempt to create utopian living arrangements before the material conditions that can sustain them are realised. Particularly among New Leftists, Maoists and anarchists, communal living, open relationships, “workerist” lifestyles and obsessive political correctness became a substitute for effective political action.
Beatty peppers “Reds” with frequent cuts to his octogenarian witnesses, who comment with an amusing degree of conflict and delusion: while one describes morally conservative times, Henry Miller bluntly declares that “There was just as much fucking going on then as now…” But, after a while, it slowly dawns that the old saw about history repeating itself may be happening to us: with our hopes, dreams, loves and betrayals, we’re next in line.
His repeated use of the excruciating 19th Century children’s song, “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard”, fails in its intended Stanley Kubrick-style irony, by unambiguously mocking the story and characters. It appears that Beatty struggled with a failure of nerve over the film’s 10-year development history. He seems tempted to subvert his very real sympathy for Reed – Hollywood, after all, allows belief in only one thing.
The film weaves personal relationships into a larger tapestry that includes the early activities of the American Socialist Party. Crowded, smoke-filled halls, lots of yelling about events in Russia, a major fight with Louise about infidelity, and her abrupt departure for Europe leave Jack forlorn and sick with kidney disease. He pursues Louise to the Western Front and convinces her to come with him to Moscow.
Beatty depicts revolutionary Russia with atmospheric scenes of political turmoil and breathless journalistic assessments of the Bolsheviks. Reed mounts a podium and claims that American workers are waiting for the Russian workers’ leadership in pulling out of the war. Over a montage of street demonstrations, political meetings (with convincing shots of Lenin and Trotsky) and lovemaking with Jack and Louise, we hear “The Internationale.” The film has become a boisterous red balloon, about to pop. Thus ends Part 1.
And, lest we forget that our good time is predicated on the struggles of those who’ve gone before, Part 2 opens with an elderly woman singing “The Internationale”, slightly off-key.
Among the interviewees, only Henry Miller still carried a whiff of celebrity status in 1981. Never much of a theorist, he says people who want to “save the world” either have “no problems of their own” or have “problems they can’t face up to.” At the beginning of Part 2, he says “Jesus Christ tried to save humanity and they crucified him for it.” His politically-worthless comment sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Louise and Jack return to an America on full Red Alert: Jack’s notes and documents are confiscated. “Welcome back” says a subdued Eastman, “a lot’s been happening.” Ironically, they embark on a traditional lifestyle, with Louise pouring tea for the boys in revolutionary smoke-filled rooms. Beatty cuts emphatically to her gloomy face, and the film’s mood shifts.
Convincing scenes of the American Socialist Party depict the notorious penchant of competing factions to split and form new movements. Reed abuses an inept, down-on-his-luck comrade and justifies it by claiming that “only building the party will help Eddie.” The moment illustrates a corollary of the “revolutionary lifestyle” belief: that personal considerations may be shelved in favour of the only effective vehicle for changing human relations: The Revolution.
As Reed and other factionalists get into pissing contests about who really represents the workers revolution, Bryant becomes petulant and withdrawn. Max Eastman expresses her doubts: “You know, we all, more-or-less, believe in the same thing. With us it’s good intentions, but with Jack, it’s a religion.”
Finally, Reed is elected to represent the Communist Labor Party of America to the Comintern. Louise explodes. She’s tired of the “petty political squabbling between humorless hack politicians just wasting their time on left-wing dogma… and your group of 14 intellectuals in the basement who are supposed to tell the workers of this country what they want – whether they want it or not!” She insists that he’s a writer, not a politician, and declares she’s not going to Russia.
Suddenly, much of the film’s energy vanishes. Bryant’s negativity doesn’t play well off Jack’s single-minded dedication to the cause. She becomes unlikeable – a fatal flaw in a heroine. While Louise, in growing despair, watches silent cinema cartoons (the dumbing down of the culture’s been going on for some time!), Jack stows away aboard a Finland-bound steamer.
Reed arrives in Russia – we’re supplied with facts about the imperialist blockade – and is confronted with signs of parasitic bureaucracy in the person of Zinoviev (Jerzy Kozinski), who, as Jack talks about the labour movement in America, feasts on a raw onion and a lemon with salt. It’s an inspired bit of actorly business that underlines Jack’s predicament as a fish-out-of-water amongst a revolutionary leadership that has abandoned personal life and made peace with the necessity of severe political repression. Instructed to amalgamate the two left parties back home, Jack heads back to Finland. He promptly lands in prison.
The film then resorts to uninspired, faux-Doctor Zhivago scenes depicting Jack’s and Louise’s ill-fated attempts to meet somewhere, but we’re starting not to care. Indeed, when Zhivago chases the phantoms of his family through a Russian blizzard, the tension and anguish are palpable. When Reed and Bryant fail to connect, their ambivalence is ours.
The Kremlin arranges Reed’s release; in Moscow he faces a Commintern that insists on dictating policy to its American sympathizers. Jack resigns and watches a long phalanx of soldiers march past – the revolutionary state is entrenching itself as the cold wind of thermidor sweeps across the quad.
While Jack blames the decline on bureaucrats, his friend, Emma Goldman, no longer has doubts. In a powerful polemic, she says the revolution is dead: the all-powerful state has destroyed everything they believed in: opposition newspapers are banned; dissenters are exterminated; power confined to a small group of men. Reed counters with familiar “Revolution is not a tea party!” arguments, but reveals his own doubts when he says: “If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?” Steeling himself, he tears up his resignation and recommits himself to the revolution.
Reed travels with Zinoviev to Azerbaijan. He’s incensed when Zinoviev, in an opportunistic appeal to local Islamists, rewrites his speech, substituting “holy war” for “class war”. Jack attacks the Russian, claiming that “When you kill dissent, you kill the revolution!”, and “Don’t rewrite what I write!” The train is attacked by Whites and, in the scene’s ambiguous final shot, Reed is seen running towards them. We’re reminded of his chasing the Zapatistas, and some defend it as an echo of the “John Reed has to be where the action is,” vignette. But given Jack’s growing doubts – and complete absence of dramatic motivation – I wonder.
Reed has few lines left to utter in this $40 million dollar homage to political and personal ambivalence. Bryant meets him on a Moscow railway platform. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me!” Political turmoil can’t compete with romantic reunion, and it’s almost touching. Exhausted, sick and hospitalized, Jack rallies briefly and asks Louise if she wants to come with him to New York. Echoing their first scenes together, he asks “What as?” “Comrades?” replies Bryant. “I want to go home,” he whispers, and dies.
It’s a sad ending to a melancholy film that highlights the tragedy and heartbreak of the 20th century radical experience. Beatty deserves credit for wrestling so publicly with his political and personal demons. It was another film of the period – Jonah, Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (1976) – that summed it up for revolutionaries, artists and everyone else: “Our lives go faster than history.”