The Ecphorizer

Movie Review: Reds
JoAnn Malina

Issue #05 (January 1982)


This may be a difficult review to write, because to give away parts of the plot of "Reds," Warren Beatty's epic romance (romantic epic?) would be to rob it of some of its emotional impact, and it succeeds above all on an emotional level. Success on an emotional level means that occasionally your brain is saying "Yeah, well...", or "But. what about... .", but your heart is saying "Yes, yes, yes!". Even if you dislike being an involved in a film, you can learn some things about the radical and revolutionary movements in the first quarter of this century that should never have been forgotten by later generations who sought to reshape this country.

"Reds" is the story of Jack Reed, American journalist and radical (played by Beatty), and Louise Bryant, who was sometimes both (played by Diane Keaton, who does not for one second play her character as space cadet). It is the story of their love, and of Reed's movement from reporting history to helping to make it in the world of revolutions that followed World War I. Unlike "Dr. Zhivago," it does not use the Russian Revolution as a backdrop to reveal its characters' natures; "Reds" asks and attempts to answer political questions.

The era during and after World War I was a time of both political and social upheaval. Europe, which had had a generation of peace, had to deal with the loss of millions of people and the toppling of dynasties (German, Austrian, Russian). Social structures began to dissolve. Barbara Tuchman's "The Proud Tower," Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," and Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey stories can give you a feel for what happened to people in Europe in these years. "Ragtime," an amazing book, shows what was happening to us during this passing of one age and beginning of another. America, which bad lost so much less, went through a less violent change; though there were strikes and upheavals in abundance, the preoccupation of America was more with sex than with death, and is well exemplified in the opening of "Reds": the good citizens of Portland find the most interesting thing about a photographic exhibit the fact that Louise Bryant, wife of a local dentist, is featured in the nude.

But while "Reds" is a window on a fascinating era, it is not a comprehensive documentary, but a poser of questions: What is the relation of men and women? How far do you go in pursuit of your ideals? These are of interest not only within the context of the film, and not only for that particular epoch; they are of vital interest to us, the audience, who will be extrapolating the answers we see acted out to see how they fit our own lives. Why else tell stories?

Throughout the film, Louise struggles with the choice between her desire to make her work important, and the desire to append herself to Jack and help him with his work. At least in the film, Jack's writing is superior and his work touches more and more lives as he leaves reporting for action. With plenty of space and time to develop her own talent, Louise does not, but sulks about the time Jack devotes to his.

Emotionally the problem is right on target for women in the 80s; however, the fact that most women are not minor talents with a genius to look after makes the resolution of "Reds" less than universally applicable. When two people walk one path, the urge for that path to be the man's is still strong in both. Women in the 60s and 70s challenged that notion by saying that that they were doing in the world was as important as what the men were doing; what needs to be said, however, is that little of what most of us, men and women, are doing is of historical import, and so the question needs to he rephrased: What are any of us doing that's so goddamned important that it is keeping us apart from one another?

Because of the facts in these characters' Lives, the general question was not answered for me by the romantic resolution; but it reinforced the feeling that some balance will have to be worked out. It may take another couple of generations to happen. A film showing a lesser-talented man devoting himself to a brilliant woman would be emotionally instructive; anyone out in ECPHORIZER-land who knows of such a film (or novel, play or story), please share it with the rest of us.

The other theme of "Reds" is expounded in Reed's ever-deeper involvement in and final disillusionment with the Bolshevik revolution. My desultory research suggests that no such loss of faith happened to the real Reed. He is buried in the Kremlin, a hero of the Revolution for his stirring speeches and writings. But Warren Beatty is a long time radical, and his interpretation of events is important to other veterans of the late 60s upheavals.

Did Reed have a sign on his door "Property is theft, walk in"? I don't know, but there were people who did in the 60s. Did Emma Goldman (beautifully portrayed in the film by Maureen Stapledon) repudiate the Bolshevik Revolution? I don't know, but Joan Baez declared the genocide perpetrated by the Vietnamese to be as evil as that committed by the Americans. (Best Film of 2025 will probably be a historic epic dramatizing the points of view of Baez and Jane Fonda, two famous revolutionaries of the late 20th century). Did Jack Reed become disillusioned with the violence and seemingly total concern an the part of the Bolsheviks with their own power? I don't know, but most Americans did, wishing a plague on everyone's house when it was discovered that "people's" governments could be as cynical and life-hating as any clique of bloated imperialists and their running dogs. Witness the current mess in Poland, another lesson in the rule that the first priority of any government is its own perpetuation in power.

As one who has studied the Russian and Chinese revolutions, I found it particularly poignant to see some of the giant figures of the former portrayed as the fallible people they were. The film does not tell us, but Zinoviev, who lectures Reed on the necessity to put the Revolution before all personal relations, was later devoured by it, as were Redek and Trotsky and so many others; except for Trotsky, they even publicly recanted before being executed. For the good of that same revolution, they believed. Were they right? Is __ worth any price it may cost to achieve it? Fill in the blank with your favorite cause: Communism, Capitalism, Reaganomics, the right to bear arms, Justice, the right to own property, everyone worshipping the one, true and only god?

"Reds" will not answer this question for you. It will not tell you how men and women can live together. But it will help you experience through its actors what it is like to labor, and struggle, and see the consequences of what you are and what you have done. Film, by its illusion that we are watching events as they happen, can remind us that what happens in the world is caused by people acting, and that what is now came from the past, and that we create the future daily. 

Contributor Profile

JoAnn Malina

She was a former officer and newsletter staffer in San Francisco Regional Mensa. She was well-known for her columns about the behavior of Mensans. An escapee from Chicago, she has worked as a career programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.




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