The rather black and white narrative-pitting American good against Soviet evil- that many people in this country assign to the Cold War tends to block out a much more complicated and accurate version of American history that includes people sympathetic to the Soviet cause. Reds, directed by Warren Beatty and released in 1981, sets out to debunk this oversimplification.
The story-based on the life of journalist Jack Reed (played by Beatty) – begins in the energetic, but largely abstract world of the American counterculture that existed in the 1910’s. Reed, a prominent fixture within this social scene, is a talented journalist whose Marxist sympathies do just enough to prevent him from enjoying the comforts of a successful career at a mainstream publication. Instead of becoming a bonafide member of the journalistic establishment, he floats in between two worlds, one occupied by irregular and fiery radicals debating how to bring about a worker’s revolution, and another comprised of well tailored socialites-many prominent editors- of who mostly have lukewarm liberal views.
But then-in 1917- revolution strikes in Russia and Reed-along with his journalist wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton at her very best)- through a combination of skill and circumstance find themselves embroiled in a concrete application of the beliefs they had spent so much time arguing over and drinking to. As the revolution progresses, they can barely write fast enough to record its swirl of events that took place during Russia in that fateful year.
Though it is solidly shot- with convincing period costumes and props- the film’s real strength lies in its screenplay-which Beatty co-wrote with Trevor Griffiths. Both writers provide an incredibly complex portrait of both Reed, but also the American leftist movement-comprised of a cacophony of intriguing characters including anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and playwright Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson), whose tendencies toward combat and copulation make for all sorts of drama.
And by the closing credits- this epic-three hour plus narrative- remains remarkably fresh- revealing a slew of interesting ideas relating to the challenges faced by Reed in balancing political and personal life, as well as those of the American communist movement in responding to the Bolshevik Revolt. This type of complexity makes both disks well worth it.