Warren Beatty has made his fair share of terrible movies over the years, who could forget Ishtar or Town and Country (believe me, I’ve tried). However, I can forgive him pretty much all of these mistakes for having the determination to make Reds, despite everyone at the time telling him that it was career suicide.
In 1980 when the film came out Beatty was at the height of his box office powers as a leading man. The public wanted to see him in romantic comedies like Shampoo and Heaven can wait or thrillers like The Parallax View, not political biographies of communists. Ignoring the advice of those around him Beatty decided to not just star in the film but write, produce and direct it as well. What he ended up creating was easily one of the greatest political movies of all time.
The film itself is a three hour epic showing how American journalist Jack Reed covered the Russian revolution and wrote the classic book ‘Ten days that shook the world’. The film also portrays his relationship with other socialists and intellectuals of the time including the anarchist Emma Goldman played by Maureen Stapleton and the playwright Eugene O’Neill played by an unusally under-acting Jack Nicholson. At the heart of the movie though is Reed’s romance with socialite Louise Bryant played by Diane Keaton as she becomes involved in radical politics and follows him to Russia.
Interspersed in the drama are real-life interviews with people who knew Jack and Louise giving the film added historical weight. Americans by and large have never embraced socialism but the film vividly re-creates the early days of the 20th century when it genuinely seemed that there might be a better way of organising the world. Beatty doesn’t shy away from their failures either. Towards the end of the film he asks serious questions about the direction the Russian Revolution was taking and the means used to achieve the ends. Ultimately though the film asks some very important questions about how we define freedom, both political and economic and what role journalists should play in fighting for that freedom. Possibly the greatest success of Reds as a movie is that it makes the historical arguments of a century ago seem as relevant today as they were then.
The fact that the film got made at all is proof against the argument that Hollywood studios don’t take risks. Who else was going to finance a three hour bio-pic about an obscure communist to the tune of 30 million dollars? They were rewarded by the film making a profit at the box office and winning several Oscars.