Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection
Warren Beatty’s epic about the life and death of American radical journalist John Reed (1887-1920) whose book Ten Days That Shook the World was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Russian revolution. Aside from its first-class cast, the movie uniquely featured interviews with more than two dozen “witnesses,” serving as narrators of Reed’s life and the great turmoil of the period.
John Reed is remembered today, insofar as he is remembered at all, as the somewhat Byronic hero of American radicalism’s age of innocence. The author of Ten Days That Shook the World was handsome and dashing, an eloquent speaker, a superb reporter and a daring activist. And he died young, a casualty in the war for social justice. As Henry Miller remarks in Reds, Reed thought he could bring to pass the universal brotherhood of man—a notion that had also occurred to Christ, and for which He was crucified. It may be said, then, that Reed was a revolutionary saint, and saints, it is notorious, are uncomfortable companions for the commonalty. They are imprudent, intolerant and impatient; they are overbearing and can be cruel. We put saints on pedestals, that being the safest way to cope with them.
Warren Beatty—who directed Reds from a script he wrote with Trevor Griffiths, and who plays Reed in the film is explicit about what it means to rub elbows with saintliness. Reds, like Chariots of Fire and Ragtime is a big historical machine, but it is not, as are those others, brightened by the varnish of nostalgia. It spans the churning second decade of this century, from the vain struggle of the I.W.W. to gather the workers of America into one invincible union, to the triumph of Bolshevism in the maelstrom of Russia after World War I. It is the period when Greenwich Village became the symbol of our native bohemia, when Eugene O’Neill was writing his early one-acters in New York City and Provincetown, when Max Eastman edited The Masses, when Emma Goldman laughed at her jailers, when not one but two American Communist parties split off from the decorous Socialists and when Lenin found power lying in the streets.
In the center of this international turmoil, giving it dramatic shape and human scale, Beatty places the love, marriage and scarifying incompatibility of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), the Portland, Oregon, dentist’s wife and emancipated woman who mistrusted Reed’s vision, hated the way he spent himself and followed him to the end of his desperate quest. The two aspects of this movie, the world stage and the personal romance, are almost grotesquely disproportionate, and it would have been fatally easy to let the private story dominate, producing a sentimental tale of love surviving the flames. Beatty makes clear the bruising relationship between Reed and Bryant, but he develops that side of the film always in the context of the social and political upheavals in which the lovers appear as both agents and pawns. From time to time, he and Keaton fill the screen with the vehemence of their characters’ competing wills, but then almost immediately they are swept away again by the storm.