The 54th Academy Awards (1982)
Reds is the kind of Oscar-winning film that has been a bit forgotten over the years for reasons that are pretty easy to pinpoint. First, it’s one of the longer Best Picture nominees at 195 minutes, putting it just behind The Irishman in length, but still ahead of this year’s Drive My Car. It also isn’t the work of some revered auteur, as Warren Beatty has one of the strangest filmographies I can think of, with this being his most acclaimed film by a pretty wide margin. And while it does mostly earn its 3-plus hours with a scope that could certainly be considered epic, it feels a little too heady and political to fit into your traditional notions of what constitutes a big-screen epic.
Reds is also a film that feels a little bit out of place with where both the film industry and the culture had shifted by 1981. Since the film features many of the stars most associated with the New Hollywood movement of the ’70s, which on top of Beatty includes Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Gene Hackman, it feels very much like a product of that previous decade. Despite the film being planned since the mid-70s, its difficult conception and even more difficult year-long shoot pushed it back to being released in 1981. So by the time of Reds‘ release, the ’70s mavericks had all but sealed their own doomed fates with flops like Heaven’s Gate and One From The Heart. Additionally, by the time Reds was finally released, moviegoers had turned toward the escapist fare of Spielberg and Lucas, while Reds’ lefty politics also felt distinctly out of place in a country that was wrapping up its first year of Ronald Reagan as president.
Another element that makes Reds such an oddity is that it is a biopic about a figure who much like the film he’s at the heart of, has been lost a bit in the shuffle of history. John Reed was a journalist at the heart of the brief flirting with socialism and communism that happened in different pockets of America in the early 1900s. Much of the first half of the film deals with Reed railing against World War I while writing for a left-leaning newspaper called The Masses. We also see the beginnings of Reed’s relationship with fellow journalist and radical Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and the way in which he clearly needs her to be a part of his life but is often too concerned with getting involved in the Big Events Of His Time to ever put her first.
Eventually, this leads Bryant to have an affair with playwright Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson) while Reed is away covering the 1916 Democratic National Convention. When Reed finds out, he’s hurt by it despite him also admitting to engaging in affairs of his own, which leads to the two of them getting married. Their relationship is further bolstered when they are assigned to report on the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which Reed uses as the basis for his book Ten Days That Shook The World. After returning home to America, Reed goes back to Russia, hoping to bridge the gap between the striking union workers of America and the new communist regime in Russia, but becomes disillusioned with their lack of vision. After an arduous journey to Russia to find Reed, Louise reunites with him, though by that time he is in poor physical condition and quickly dies of typhus at the age of 32.
Making a compelling and cinematic film about a writer is always a tough task, though considering the scope and ambition of John Reed’s short life, it’s not hard to see why Warren Beatty wanted to tell his story on-screen. I was even more skeptical of the film’s run-time watching the first hour or two of Reds, since it more or less takes place in smokey New York apartments and meeting halls while most of the scenes consist of these over-important conversations about revolution and worker’s rights coming from these self-aggrandizing intellectuals. But in the second half of the film, the story really does open up into a grand epic as we see the sweep of the Russian Revolution through these two Americans’ eyes. It gives the film this feeling that even seemingly ordinary people can get caught up in world-shaking events, even if they are just spectators, though John Reed does try his damnedest to become an actual player in Russia’s future, much to no avail.
Related to this is idea is the fact that Reds is filled with real-life documentary-style interviews with many of the people who were still living in the ’70s who knew Louis Bryant and John Reed during their time. It’s a device that I honestly can’t recall seeing in any other historical drama other than Band of Brothers, though that’s a little different since those are interviews with characters that we actually see on screen. It’s a device that makes you casually aware that what you’re watching is just a glossy interpretation of the real events and that the real John Reed and Louise Bryant were in fact not as attractive as Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.
Speaking of, this film has the distinction of having a nomination in every acting category, with Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton getting supporting noms in addition to Keaton and Beatty. It speaks to the film’s ability to not let the actors (and their characters) get overshadowed by the world-changing events depicted, which are more of a backdrop for the story rather than the focal point. Stapleton would actually win for her turn as activist Emma Goldman who shows up throughout the film as a dependable source of both friendship and intellectual foresight. It’s also a little surprising that Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds, considering I still have no idea what Warren Beatty’s signature style is as a director, especially when putting this alongside the likes of Heaven Can Wait or Dick Tracy. But he really does pull off something impressive here, even if this absolutely feels like the kind of true story that would get made as a limited series on FX or HBO if it was made today.
It is, of course, a little weird to be watching this movie right now since it is very much about Americans grappling with their relationship to Russia’s instability. But at the same time, this is a very different Russia than the one the world is currently reckoning with. Similarly, you also can’t help but think of the most recent iterations of socialist-influenced thinking that has crept into liberal politics in the last 6 or 7 years and how those ideals often feel a little futile when applying them to American capitalism. It’s the kind of thing the best period pieces evoke, where they make you all too aware that the things happening in our time are not actually that unprecedented, since they also happened back when people were wearing ornate clothing and smoking a lot more.