Review: Reds (1981)

Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

The sweeping drama Reds (1981), co-written and directed by Warren Beatty, is truly epic.

Today is a special day to review this film, as it is, in the Gregorian Calendar, the anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917 (occurring on October 25 in the Julian Calendar), in which the Bolshevik Communist Party seized power from the government, storming the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.

Warren Beatty stars as real-life American journalist John Reed (1887-1920), a communist sympathizer caught in the politics of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Fervent in his desire to bring a similar socialist revolution to capitalist America, Reed must juggle between a love life with American journalist Louise Bryant, Russian politics, the brutality of the First World War,  and desire to be a journalist witnessing history.

This biopic is unique, in that it is inter-cut with short interviews from people who knew the real Reed. These so-called “witnesses” tell their perspective of who John was, ranging from support to opposition.  “I’d forgotten all about them,” one woman scoffs: “Were they socialists? I guess they must’ve been, but I don’t think they were of any importance. I don’t remember them at all.”

An example of the stunning cinematography. Here, John Reed and Louise Bryant participate in the storming of the Winter Palace, sparking the October Revolution

An example of the stunning cinematography. Here, John Reed and Louise Bryant participate in the storming of the Winter Palace, sparking the October Revolution

From secret socialist rallies in the United States to meeting Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky themselves in Russia, Warren Beatty successfully depicts the difficulty Reed had faced. This includes, most importantly, the frustration of bureaucracy, manipulative lying, and petty politics from the both the socialist parties at home and Russian Politburo overseas. He is one man caught up in the world of international politics. This, of course, disappoints Reed, but yet he still holds on to his ideal of a global socialist economy. Beatty cannot make this internal struggle any more fascinating.

It is over three and a half hours long, but you’ll never lose interest or catch yourself looking away. With an all-star cast like Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Maureen Stapleton, Reds puts a human face not only to the communists in the early-twentieth century, but to communism itself.

The film does not endorse the ideology, however; it instead emphasizes the well-intended, but ultimately flawed, Portland-born man who wanted to change the world. “I don’t remember his exact words,” a witness states at the end of the film: “but the meaning was that grand things are ahead, worth living and worth dying for. He himself said that.” John Reed was an idealist to the very end, and this movie shows that perfectly.

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