It’s weird to call a film that earned 12 Oscar nominations underrated or forgotten—especially when that films stars Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson—but Reds is both underrated AND forgotten.
I first encountered the film in a college class on late European history. We watched a film each week that chronicled some major event on the continent—among them Paths of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, and a dozen others you’ve seen on cable or read about on best-of lists over the years.
Reds was the odd one that eluded even my sharp cinematic radar, and maybe for that reason it entranced me—all three hours of it. It’s messy as hell, but the ratio of earnestness to scope is genuinely remarkable and more than makes up for any flaws.
The film chronicles the life and politics of Jack Reed—an American writer and political activist who managed to make it to the front lines of the Russian Revolution of 1917 [as well as the forever-stalled attempts at something similar in America]. Reed [played by Beatty with the heft of a true movie star just fucking going for it] is accompanied throughout the film by Louise Bryant [Beatty’s real-life love interest at the time, Diane Keaton], a fellow writer who’s similarly passionate about the rights of the worker but maybe a little more practical than her partner regarding process.
They fight, and make up, and fight, and make up, but the idealism that drives their politics exists in the DNA of their relationship. For every declaration of “I’m leaving and not coming back,” they find themselves magnetically attracted back together, even when the distance spans continents.
And it’s this relationship—more so than any political intrigue, historical complexity, or filmmaking bravado—that brings me back to Reds. In the first half of the film, even their lower points are depicted somewhat playfully, and the final montage before the intermission sees them at their most transcendent—in Petrograd, Russia, experiencing the long-awaited Revolution while they thrive in love and in writing.
The rest of the film is a full-fucking-stop tragedy. Full of hope, they return to America with red eyes and full hearts, but things just don’t go that well. They’re both chasing those days in Petrograd, and they take increasingly drastic steps to recapture them, but it’s not meant to be. A reunion, on death’s door for one of them and thousands of miles from home, is our [and their] catharsis.
I’m a sucker for stories like this, about deep, overwhelming love people have for a lost time and place. That’s tragedy. It’s unrequited by necessity, by definition. Yes, Jack and Louise love each other. That much is extremely clear, but what they really love, what they long for more than anything is the rush of revolution, the inspiration, the feeling that anything is possible, that what you’re doing and what you’re writing makes a genuine difference not just for someone but for history.
They had it, but they lost it—not of their own accord or mistakes, of course, but because that’s how life works.
I watched Reds on Hulu, and as soon as it finished playing, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button came on—another extremely underrated film that you wouldn’t think has much else to do with Reds on the surface, but they’re very similar. Benjamin Button’s tragedy is by plot device. These two people can only be together for a short time because of the title character’s condition. They know this, and it hangs over the film like a ghost.
In Reds, the ghost is history. Their failure to make communism happen in America is something Louise foresaw. The country wasn’t ready [and clearly never would be], and the ground lost to corruption back in Russia—so eloquently and passionately debated by Reed and Maureen Stapleton’s Emma “EG” Goldman in a truly joyful performance—is another fatal blow to their dreams.
I’m delighted to be writing about this film this week and I hope, if you’ve never heard of it or considered watching it before, that you give it a chance. While the length is certainly intimidating, it earns almost every minute.