I admit it. It’s not the Marxist lovefest I expected.
I went into Warren Beatty’s 1981 opus expecting it to be another Hollywood love letter to socialism. Instead, what I witnessed was a remarkably honest portrait of a doomed love affair between two seminal American communist radicals. Without any cheap appeals to sentimentality or candy coated platitudes, Beatty gives an unvarnished account of the various ways their radical ideals pitted them against one another and drove them apart despite their deep devotion to one another.
Reds is a sweeping historical political drama which encompasses the roots of the American socialist Left, World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The film is built around the tempestuous love affair between John Reed and Louise Bryant played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton respectively. Its major achievement is how it manages to expose the limitations of Marxism by showing how the central characters’ allegedly revolutionary ideals undermined their ability to simply be with one another.
As expected, the film spells out some of the facile appeal of socialism at the outset. Beatty takes a very classical approach to filmmaking and the themes of the film are embedded in the characters. Louise Bryant is the aspiring writer and avowed feminist with libertine sexual mores who scandalizes Portland’s high society. John Reed leaves jaws agape at the Liberal Society when he openly opines that the motivation behind the war is the capitalistic profit motive. Louise is enthralled by Reed and asks him for an interview. They spend an evening together in which Reed
bores the shit out of her regales her with his passionate desire to foment a socialist revolution. Socialist feminist and Marxist revolutionary meet and the seeds of a deep love affair at a momentous time in history are sown.
All of the touchstones of leftist bohemian ideals and political activism are present. Naturally, the couple shared a permissive attitude towards sexual promiscuity and polyamory. Their disdain for capitalism, anti-war sentiment, artistic idealism, and initial refusal to submit to traditional bourgeois values are attitudes that would define the Left for decades. Most importantly, they shared a naïve hope in the promise of a worker’s revolution.
Reed and Bryant eventually travel to Greenwich Village and we’re introduced to the seminal figures of America’s socialist Left including Emma Goldman and Max Eastman. The atmosphere is ripe with revolutionary spirit, and Reed dives headlong into activist journalism. Reed’s attempts to cover labor organizing efforts for his socialist magazine take him away from Bryant and drive an emotional wedge between them. Meanwhile, Bryant tries to peddle her journalism, but fails because her writing sucks. She tries to assert her independence, but can’t confront how much she ultimately wants and needs Reed. The couple resolve to remain together and set out to Provincetown, MA with Eugene O’Neill to live as artists in a quasi-communistic manner.
Reed’s activism leads him away from the idyll of Provincetown, and on to the campaign trail to canvass for Woodrow Wilson. Bryant has an affair with O’Neill, and Beatty draws out the conflict between monogamy and the bohemian spirit of free love.
Bryant and Reed separate again, but are reunited when Reed follows her to France. He asks her to join him on his journey to Petrograd to cover the imminent Bolshevik Revolution. Though their love is rekindled in the fires of the Revolution, their activity is not viewed favorably by US federal authorities. Reed is given a platform at a Bolshevik rally and stirs up the proles with some good old fashioned demagoguery. It’s impeccably staged and plays like an Occupy Wall Street protest if it weren’t run by a bunch of pussies.
They return to the US with a renewed hope in revolution, but with the Feds hot on their tail. Adding to their travails is their renewed tensions with the American Socialist Party. Reed is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and tries to persuade them to adopt a Bolshevik spirit. Predictably, he finds that his views are at odds with the leadership of the party. Reed breaks with the main party and forms his own more “pure” Socialist Party and is voted as the leader to seek the sanction of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Here, the film turns a corner and starts to show how the revolution and Marxist dogma ultimately implodes and pits socialists against one another. The bickering and tests of purity which the party members apply to one another translates perfectly to modern day purges carried out by social justice progressives today.
After enduring imprisonment for improper paperwork, Reed travels back to Moscow is ultimately conscripted by the party elites to be a propagandist. The consequences of his choice hit hard as he is denied return to the United States. He finds his appeals to the Party squashed by crushing authoritarianism. Reed is further dismayed to discover that he is unable to get a simple communication to his wife due to the palsied bureaucratization, incompetence and backwardness of life in Soviet Russia.
He is ultimately reunited with the recently deported Emma Goldman and he ponders his fate in her squalid apartment. In a devastating monologue, Goldman tries to appeal to his sense of reason by pointing out the tragic failure of the revolution. Instead of emancipating the proletariat, the Bolshevik regime has metastasized into a brutal and repressive police state. Not only is the dictatorship of the proletariat intolerant of dissent, it has driven the economy into deep contraction and dysfunction. Blinded by his idealism, Reed brushes it off and says that you just can’t have a revolution without cracking a few skulls.
Reed is sent on a fateful mission to Azerbaijan to bring the gospel of Bolshevist Socialism to the Muslims. Adding to his escalating disillusionment, he discovers that his propaganda speech was mistranslated by Party kommissar, Zinoviev. Drawing an excellent and accurate parallel between Marxism and Islam, Zinoviev replaced “class war” with “Holy war”. Reed gets upset that his voice and intent was subordinated by the will of the Party and launches into a screed against the tyranny of the collective. It’s good stuff.
The train is sacked by counter-revolutionaries and a stunning battle scene involving cavalry, muskets and cannons ensues.
Meanwhile, Bryant travels to Russia to try and find Reed. They are ultimately reunited, but Reed contracts typhus and he spends his last days in a Soviet hospital.
Despite the patina of revolutionary politics, Reds is a traditional romance which ultimately affirms monogamous bourgeois values. Reed and Bryant were variously portrayed as marginal talents and busybodies who were trying to reconcile their artistic ambitions with their political sensibilities and libertine sexual desires. These values worked at cross purposes more often than not and each paid an emotional price.
Reds is an impeccably produced dramatic romance which tackles a lot of pithy material. It reveals the roots of socialism’s enduring appeal while also showing where it went off the rails. Socialist ideals still hold a lot of appeal with the Hollywood set, but Beatty deserves credit for tackling it head on and with a higher than expected level of intellectual honesty.