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History And The Imagination
Ragtime and Reds
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Where Ragtime begins with a waltz, Reds begins with ragtime. It is 1915, and John Reed, revisiting his native Portland, attacks the First World War at a civic luncheon.
Louise Bryant, the wife of a Portland dentist, interviews Reed, is fascinated by him, and soon leaves her husband to join Reed in Greenwich Village. A series of very short takes—too many and too short perhaps to establish relationships with full solidity—conveys the atmosphere of political and artistic Bohemia in the Village and later in Provincetown. Louise has her affair with Eugene O’Neill but marries Reed anyway. Then the war comes. Both go to Europe as correspondents and on to Russia in time for the Revolution. The first half of Reds, after opening with ragtime, concludes with the “Internationale,” underlining the great trajectory that carried Reed from Bohemia to Bolshevism.
The second half deals with Reed’s life as a Communist—factional struggles in the United States, a mission to Moscow to resolve the divisions in the American movement, arguments about the Revolution with a disenchanted Emma Goldman, discomfiture at the hands of Zinoviev and the Comintern, Louise’s arrival in Russia, and John Reed’s death in 1920 from typhus, three days before his thirty-third birthday.
The film is faithful to history in portraying Reed at the end as a man whose mounting frustrations with the Soviet bureaucracy had not quite carried him to the point of breaking with Communism. The single time in which Reds departs flagrantly from the record is its least credible sequence. The movie has Louise Bryant joining her husband in Moscow after a preposterously arduous journey across the snows of Finland on skis. In fact, she arrived via Stockholm and Murmansk and, as described in Robert Rosenstone’s authoritative biography of Reed, without notable incident.
Though revolutionary politics pervades Reds , it should not be mistaken for a political film. Beatty’s concern is to tell the personal story of the Reeds with fidelity (except in that one sequence) to the facts. His refusal of politics will doubtless irritate critics who want to read into the movie an insidious pro-Bolshevism or (more accurately) a subtle anti-Bolshevism. Beatty is aiming for something different; and he succeeds triumphantly in presenting two talented, self-centered, competitive, passionate people, a star reporter and a New Woman, loving, testing, and exasperating each other amid great events, storm-tossed in a revolutionary age.
Some may object that Beatty himself portrays Reed less as the committed revolutionary than as the idealistic undergraduate. But contemporaneous accounts emphasize Reed’s boyish ardor—“the invincible romantic,”” his friend Louis Untermeyer called him—and this is what Beatty properly gives us. In a more complex role, Diane Keaton does not fear to render Louise Bryant not only as loving but as posing, pouting, and nagging. Especially in a sharp exchange with Eugene O’Neill, this delicious comedienne proves herself a strong dramatic actress. Jack Nicholson, an actor of contained power, gives O’Neill a mordant, bitter edge. Maureen Stapleton seems oddly cast; but if Cagney can play somebody called Rheinlander Waldo, why cannot Stapleton play Emma Goldman? Her splendid performance transcends ethnic incongruities. Like Ragtime, Reds gives writers a chance to release repressed desires to act. Jerzy Kosinski, despite an unconvincing wig, is a dogmatic and evil Zinoviev, and George Plimpton contributes a nice bit as a jocosely lecherous New York editor.
The film has its share of comfortable tag lines and repetitive banalities—Reed and his ever-waiting taxi, the dog always snuffling at the bedroom door, Reed’s head hitting the chandelier in the Petrograd flat, O’Neill forever looking for the whisky. But such concessions to sitcom taste do not seriously compromise the dash and sweep of a grand movie. Reds is beautifully photographed with impressive attention to period detail. Above all, Reds is a humane, generous-hearted, touching film. And its impact derives no more from Warren Beatty’s formidable artistic skills than from his conscientious determination to respect the truths of history.