This nearly four-hour-long political saga about Communist journalist John Reed and his neurotic wife Louise Bryant was meticulously directed by Warren Beatty, who clearly had an obsession with the man – the only American to be buried in the Kremlin.
The film begins when Reed (Warren Beatty) visits Portland, Oregon, in 1915, and meets Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), feminist writer, nude photography model, dentist’s wife, and dilettante.
She follows him to Greenwich Village, where she finds herself thrown into the company of radicals, intellectuals, Bohemians, poets, and rebels in the days of Margaret Sanger and Isadora Duncan, when the weirder you were the better copy you made.
Reed’s journalistic travels take him away from her most of the time, leaving her alone in the clutches of men like Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). In ‘Nicholson’s performance, the brooding playwright emerges as a sullen, moody, hard-drinking romantic who seduces her easily.
Later, when she gets involved in communism, too, there’s a kind of Clark Gable/Carole Lombard rivalry as John and Louise travel to Russia to file stories.
Behind the Iron Curtain, we are plunged into more talk of Trotsky politics, Leninism, strikes, and Bolsheviks. They seem to be the only Americans covering the Revolution, although it is never clear what papers they’re working for.
Later, as a representative of the American Communist party, he gets sent to Russia, wounded, and imprisoned. She searches for him on tramp steamers, on skis, and on snowshoes.
But anarchist Emma Goldman (beautifully played by Maureen Stapleton) is really the only revolutionary in the film who ever realises that the dream was a dying ideal.
In Russia, nothing worked, human rights were squashed, and everything was drowning in chaos and bureaucratic red tape. Goldman is the only character who reveals the foolishness of this calling when she articulates her frustration at being persecuted in Russia for the same things she was persecuted for back home.
John Reed never does come to such a moment of truth and dies in a charity ward in filthy and depressing conditions. The point is that a man is a hero as long as he dies for what he believes, even if nobody else does.
Pete Van Wherry