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Reds

At Harvard, Class of 1906, John Reed, impetuous freshman from Portland, Ore., was snubbed by the Eastern aristocrats, but he wasn't fazed. He charmed them with a burlesque opera. "The Girl of the Golden Toothbrush." Irrepressible, he left his card on the tombstones of Boston's Best Families, with a note: "Sorry you weren't in when we called."

He occasionally turned up at Walter Lippmann's undergraduate Socialist Club, pondered the ideas and then poked poetic fun at his distinguished classmate's solemnity.

Later, he mockingly bemoaned his own dilemma as a budding writer: "How can an artist create his Utopia: With his best eye on the World's cornucopia?"

Let's bring the question up to date: With Hollywood's eye focused on every million ($33.5) poured into "Reds," can Warren Beatty actually pull off a starring movie about John Reed and that old Bolshevik revolution? Yes. He did it! Talk about miracles! "Reds" is a great movie about a great reporter, his tempestuous marriage with another free spirit, Louise Bryant, and the birth of the revolution he was witness to in his classic book "Ten Days That Shook the World."

"Reds" is a tour-de-force on every level: beautifully, snappily integrated into a 3 1/2-hour montage that goes by like lightning, flashing with wit and song, provocative talk and stunning vistas. It has the tightly knit, unified tension and impact about people swept up by history that eluded Bertolucci in "'900" and Coppola in "Apocalypse Now."

It is an epic with a human face - funny, passionate, poignant, tragic - from the Reed-Bryant-Eugene O'Neill triangle in Provincetown to the revolutionary/radical turmoil and Reed's death by typhus in Russia, just short of his 33rd birthday.

"Reds" is Oscar-class teamwork all around and Diane Keaton is Queen Bee Louise, finally showing the fire and ice that been smoldering under that old comic dither. Beatty's a winner on every count: as producer, director, co-writer and star. He had the courage to gamble on a risky subject and the vision to find an exciting new way to tell an old, largely forgotten story.

He has woven a unique tapestry, with the finest of actors giving the best performances in memory and the lively recollections of real, honest-to-God old-timers who either knew Reed or were part of the action then.

It is maddening not to recognize all the witnesses, but some of the names aren't so important. There is Henry Miller in his ineradicable Brooklyn accent, mincing no four-letter words as he says there was just as much of "it" going on then as now, but now "there's a lot less love." Or George Jessel, singing a bit of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and saying he was influenced by Emma Goldman. Imagine! Or Dame Rebecca West grandly putting down her fellow Britisher Beatrice Webb.

The center of the drama is the love that holds together Reed and Bryant, two unusually headstrong people, no matter how many other men and women come into their lives, no matter how separated they are by work, politics, war or revolution.

Louise Bryant and John Reed start out gaily enough when the film opens on their meeting in Portland in 1905. At that time, she's married to a dentist and exercising her creative side. Reed's on the rebound (from the rich, possessive Mabel Dodge). Louise looks wickedly demure in black, broad-brimmed hat and black frock at her first picture exhibition, which features a nude self-portrait.

At 28, Reed was a dynamic, restless, fun-loving, justice-seeking writer. He had soared to instant fame after his arrest in the long Paterson, N.J. textile strike. His articles broke the press wall of silence on the two -month-old strike, and soon he was producing an unprecedented pageant starring the strikers in a packed Madison Square Garden. It set an example for "Living Newspaper" theater-to-come. Reed's fame increased as his stories appeared about riding with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.
His vivid, poetic imagery about the life he shared with the rebels, the underlying good humor without heroics, was a new kind of journalism: committed, but intellectually honest.

When he went to the Balkan front early in World War I, he developed a deep hatred for the brutalities of the war and a contempt for the parliamentary European socialists who had toed the line by voting for war credits against all their convictions. He has only one word to describe the war in an early scene at Portland's elegant Liberal Club where Louise sits poised to take notes, but he talks all night in an interview she had requested. Her breathless non-stop questions hooks him for life. As director, Beatty touches on Reed's still evolving beliefs with buoyancy and sparkle, never lingering to press a point. Whenthe first half of the film culminates in the overthrow of the Kerensky government and triumph of th Bolsheviks, it is an astonishing re-creation of history.

Beatty is superb catching Reed's charm and warmth, his poet's sensitivity and the quality Reed had of rigorous soul-searching, particularly in his silent struggle when he suspects Louise's affair with his friend O'Neill. As the playwright fascinated by Louise, Jack Nicholson drops all his usual shticks. He is shaken by her, but he's finally dour, tough and caustic about her radical beliefs "like a new-found Catholic religion with all the answers," he sneers at her. He was later to use her as the model for the woman torn between two men in "Strange Interlude." It was not O'Neill, but another lover, not mentioned in the film, who came to her aid when she had to travel on a false passport to find Reed when Revolutionary Russia was blockaded and Reed was sick in a Finnish prison.

Louise Bryant always has been a neglected, put-down figure, but Keaton gives her the full measure of a woman fighting for her own journalistic career, fighting for and against her own sexual and emotional needs in terms of other men, hating her own possessiveness when she hears from Reed about his meaningless falls from faithfulness. Although Bryant could not measure up to Reed as a reporter, few could.

There are some wonderful brief scenes showing his professional help to her, but the film fails to indicate that she was a competent reporter, covering the role of revolutionary women in Russia for the Philadelphia Ledger and the Hearst papers. Because the U.S. government confiscated for six months all of Reed's papers and notes for "10 Days," she was able to get her reports from Petersburg out before he could even begin work.

Her travels around the Arctic Circle until she finally gets back to Russia are magnificently photographed by that great cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, who is as marvelous lighting a middle-class parlor in Portland as the white nights of Norway, a herd of stampeding reindeer, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., or the faces of sick Russians in a hospital.

Beatty has condensed, pruned and taken some literary/cinematic/political liberties, but stays true to the pungent spirit of Reed, Bryant and those turbulent times. There is inevitably a whiff of hindsight about the Russian revolutionary realities. Whether Reed who helped to found a faction of the American Communist Party, had died with his illusions intact, always has been the subject of much conjecture and speculation. The arguments he has with anarchist Emma Goldman (a tough-minded role by Maureen Stapleton) who is disillusioned by the new government's purges, are stimulating . In his bouts with the vividly opinionated Goldman, Reed defends the necessity for the new Bolshevik government to protect itself against the Allied blockades.

In his confrontation with Zinoviev (the Com intern head, sharply and fiercely hawklike in novelist Jerzy Kosinski's memorable portrayal), Reed seems to be talking more like the unaligned reporter he once was, arguing for the necessity of dissent in revolution. My hunch is that such a conversation never took place, although Reed and Zinoviev were antagonists. At this late date, it doesn't seem to matter much, except to historians, whether Reed died in 1920 still believing in the revolution, since almost everyone has fallen off that train of history in every conceivable manner in all the years that followed, including Zinoviev, who was executed in Stalin's purges.

What is remarkable is that Beatty has achieved an upbeat film, despite all the horrors of the history still to come after "Reds" ends with Reed's death. There is a tone of affirmation in the voice-over comments, as though life does indeed go on. And Beatty has returned a vivid slice of ignored American and Russian history for a new generation to mull over, enjoy and debate.

San Francisco Chronicle December 4, 1981

 

 

 

 

 

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