During World War II there appeared on assorted screens a miserably inept and propagandistic film made from John Reed's best-selling book, Ten Days That Shook the World, the story of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia on which Reed continued to pin high hopes until his early death. Much better is Reds, the story of the life of John Reed.
As a work of art, Reds is unnecessarily episodic, with brief interviews with aged "witnesses" (unfortunately not named when they appear on the screen) who remember the persons depicted in the story; among them are Rebecca West, George Jessel, and Henry Miller. The first part of the film drags—unless one is interested in the ups and downs of the love affair between the two principals—and only comes to life with the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd, just before the intermission. After that it is episodic again: the return to New York, the squabbles within the American Socialist Party, the return to Russia, Reed's death from typhus there. The film never achieves the continuous sweep of character-with-history such as becomes so absorbing and moving in (for example) Doctor Zhivago, although this 3½-hour, $40-million picture is equally ambitious as a historical saga.
One doesn't learn very much about the political convictions of those involved in the Revolution; for this, one would do better to stay home and read Edward Crankshaw's Shadow of the Winter Palace. Indeed, there is not a single coherent political or economic argument to be found in the film, only people voicing convictions, usually with a degree of coherence that might earn one a C-minus in a freshman composition class. But the film isn't primarily about politics; it's about the personal lives of people who are involved in political activism. Diane Keaton plays marvelously the role of the "liberated woman" of the World War I era who, until she finally marries Reed, is unhappy when she is committed to him and equally unhappy when she isn't. Writer-director-producer Warren Beatty plays Reed with verve and energy, fully convincing us that Reed had the kind of charisma that could generate in others unquestioning loyalty. Jack Nicholson plays Eugene O'Neill as if he were Nicholson. Maureen Stapleton is Emma Goldman, the Lithuanian anarchist who, alone among the principal characters, at last becomes disillusioned with the Revolution.
The villains of the film are the American authorities who break into houses and confiscate Reed's writings and forbid his reentry into the United States. Nothing is said in criticism of their Soviet counterparts, the Chekha (secret police), on which one should read (for example) volume one of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. Nor is there any criticism of the unbelievably repressive methods used to initiate the Revolution. Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) does criticize Reed for his revolutionary activity, but only when he leaves her to return to Russia: "You want to tell the workers what they want, whether they want it or not," she says, with rare perceptiveness. But of the Revolution itself she is as loyally uncritical as her husband.
In his Theory and Practice of Bolshevism Bertrand Russell related an interview he had with Lenin, during which Lenin signed his name to some papers containing the names of some thousand people. When his deputy reported later that all the people on the list had been duly shot, Lenin explained that when he signed he thought that the people on the list were only to be investigated. Then he joked with Russell about the incident; all in a day's work, it seems. It is this aspect of the Revolution that receives no emphasis whatever in Beatty's film.
Absence of Malice
Lawsuits for libel can no longer be sustained in the Absence of Malice: unless malice is proved, persons and newspapers can say pretty much what they like against others. A reporter for a Miami newspaper (Sally Fields) writes a story about a man, citing "informed sources" who cannot be tracked down. The accused (Paul Newman) demands a retraction, but the FBI, suspecting him of a murder largely because of the earlier implication of his father in gangland crime, is meanwhile (as she knows) investigating him, partly by illegal means. As she becomes acquainted with him she comes to regret her slanted story and tries to make amends by clearing him—which, however, involves her publishing an admission by a Catholic girl that she was with him on the day of the murder, having an abortion in another city. This revelation, though true, causes the girl to kill herself. Thus is precipitated a complex series of conflicts and confrontations involving the innocent man, the reporter, the newspaper, and the FBI.
Paul Newman has never been better than in this Gary Cooper-like role of the strong, indomitable, moral man. Sally Field performs superbly the role of the reporter who, though intelligent and well-intentioned, inadvertently brings harm and grief to others. But the best thing about this fine picture, aside from its taut and highly controlled direction by Sidney Pollack, is its literate script (also by Pollack), making of the story an eloquent morality play with a keen cutting edge and a sense of the complexity of the issues. When she asks Newman what really happened on the night of the murder, he replies, "If you ask me as a person, I'll tell you; if you ask me as a reporter, I have no comment." Another example: "I know how to write the truth," a head reporter tells her, "and I know how not to hurt people; but I don't know how to do both." This film is a dramatic illustration of the conflict within a reporter who makes the attempt.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and the author of Understanding the Arts (Prentice-Hall).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".