“My idea of an American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” So said Ronald Reagan to his chief foreign policy advisor, Richard V. Allen, in 1977. Four years later, Reagan would have an opportunity to put that policy into action as president of the United States, taking up the reins of what his predecessor Jimmy Carter had started by increasing military spending as a response to the USSR’s recent intervention in Afghanistan. In the midst of this “second Cold War,” anti-Communist sentiment was high in the American air.
Imagine, then, a film coming out of Hollywood in the midst of such geopolitical tensions that not only depicted the beginnings of the Soviet Union, but cast a sympathetic eye to the communist ideals that led to its founding—all through the perspective of one of the few Americans buried in Russia. On December 4, 1981, that is exactly what hit theaters, in the form of Reds. Warren Beatty’s long-gestating passion project was in large part about the life of American journalist and revolutionary John Reed, whose book Ten Days That Shook The World offered the most in-depth English-language account of the Russian Revolution. Surely only someone with the kind of clout Beatty had at the time—as an actor, producer, and all-around celebrity—could get Hollywood to bankroll a film so deeply unfashionable to the social and political tenor of the time.
Perhaps, though, a film like Reds was inevitable, especially in light of the decade that had preceded it. Beatty always had a strong political streak to him, though this was less evident in his films than in his personal life—most notably, his heavy involvement in raising funds for the presidential election campaign of Democratic South Dakota Senator George McGovern in 1972. Still, the Beatty-starring and -produced Shampoo (1975) offered a hint of what he would eventually blow up to epic scale. A romantic roundelay, with Beatty playing a hairdresser who woos a bunch of women, Hal Ashby’s film was set on 1968’s Election Day—the day Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president, thus a symbolic marker of the disillusionment that would soon engulf the country in the 1970s, hammered by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
Reds chronicles a similar arc of disappointment, except in a more oblique historical context. Those initial stirrings of revolutionary fervor build to a fever pitch when, in the first flushes of the October Revolution, Reed (Beatty) takes the stage at a workers’ rally in Russia toward the end of the film’s first half. In the second half, this rush gives way to disappointment and horror as Reed and others bear witness to the autocratic policies imposed by Vladimir Lenin, Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), and the rest of the Bolsheviks in power. By depicting this rise and fall of communist idealism, Beatty was working out his frustrations over the way the counterculture ideals of the 1960s dissolved in the more anguished 1970s—and would only continue to do so in the increasingly right-wing America of the 1980s.
The disillusionment Beatty charts in Reds isn’t only political in nature, however. John Reed’s lover and eventual wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) is as important as Reed in the film. Through their tempestuous relationship, we witness a loss of idealism in a more intimate realm: the free-love and feminist principles in vogue among New York City artists and thinkers at the time, which would resurface in full force in the 1960s and ’70s. In a scene at the beginning of the film, Bryant is chewed out by her then-husband, dentist Paul Trullinger (Nicolas Coster), after he sees a nude portrait of her at a gallery exhibition; Bryant’s ripostes to his embarrassment suggest disappointment at her husband for being more middlebrow than he had previously let on. It turns out, however, that even though Reed, Bryant, Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), and the rest of the Greenwich Village intellectuals idealize open relationships and women living independently, they don’t always know how to handle the emotional complications of such ideals in practice.
The perpetually insecure Bryant chafes at always being in Reed’s shadow, at times lamenting that she has become the housewife she’s always dreaded she’d be—but part of that may be because she doesn’t entirely know what she wants to achieve in her own writing. Likewise, both Reed and Bryant carry on outside affairs. They try to talk themselves into believing they don’t have any emotional attachments, even though they clearly do, judging by such moments as Reed’s quiet disappointment at accidentally witnessing Bryant and O’Neill steal away a smooch, and the eventual blow-up when Reed discovers O’Neill’s love note for Bryant in his copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Like Reed’s communism, Bryant’s interpersonal ideals don’t pan out in reality.
Reds, then, as an indirect sum-up of the 1970s making its appearance in 1981—months after Reagan had been elected president and years after the enormous success of Star Wars more or less put an end to a whole era of personal filmmaking in American cinema—seems all the more out-of-place. It’s a stylistic throwback as well: an old-fashioned, star-studded, big-budget historical epic with an intermission, filmed in a classical style that hearkens back in some ways to David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. (The last time a film like this had made it to theaters was in 1975 with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and it felt boldly anachronistic then as well.)
But in the context of the Cold War and the way the U.S. responded to what it perceived as the encroaching Soviet threat, Reds stands out most of all not just for its open espousal of a socialist point-of-view—anathema to Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—but for its attention to human complexity. It’s not just the film’s characters that are painted with nuance. Beatty is clear-eyed about communism as well: sympathetic to the politics, but wide awake to the despotic dangers that could (and sadly did) emerge. Even Zinoviev, in many ways contemptible for the way he hides behind bureaucratic walls, delivers a speech—about his need to forsake his sick son in order to devote himself more fully to the Bolshevik cause—that suggests, with gut-wrenching clarity, that he has his own reasons for basically imprisoning John Reed in Russia’s borders.
Such empathetic gestures couldn’t help but distinguish Reds in the midst of a decade that would, among other things, bring us cartoons of Russian might like Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago. If the current rise of Donald Trump—whose inflammatory, xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric seems to strike a chord in a large number of Americans—suggests anything, it’s that a film like Reds may be as unfashionable and necessary now as it was in 1981.