SUNDAY ESSAY: Art Beyond Propaganda

I had, on a particular occasion, the opportunity to meet the editor, Lisa Churgin, of the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ shortly after the movie was released in 1995. Only days earlier I had seen the film for the third time and in the few moments I had with Ms. Churgin, I asked her if the filmmakers had set out to create an anti-death penalty movie and she answered without hesitation yes, that had been the goal.

I was conflicted about how to respond to her assertion because I felt then as now that ‘Dead Man Walking’ is a great movie with Sean Penn at his career best, and that it was a pro-death penalty movie at heart. The prospect of imminent death drove the central character, Matthew Poncelet, to admit his role in the double murder of two innocent teens, and his death brought some sense of relief to the grieving families of the dead. The story’s central character, Sister Helen Prejean, was a witness to this transformation even though she fought to save Poncelet’s life. She did her job as a spiritual leader, comforting the murderer Poncelet, and the state did the rest. There was no injustice there.

More recently, I watched ‘Doctor Zhivago’ with one of my kids, and to my delight, he loved it. It is one of my favorite movies and I think, one of the great romance movies of all time.  Because my son liked ‘Doctor Zhivago’ so much, we decided to watch ‘Reds,’ with Warren Beatty. Beatty both stars and directs the movie which was an Oscar winner in 1981. The story is about John Reed, an American journalist who, as a journalist, covered the revolution and follow on war in Russia and upon his death was buried in the Kremlin. John Reed is the subject of the film, but the lead of the story is his mistress and later wife Louise Bryant brilliantly played by Diane Keaton.

John Reed was a committed socialist, writer, and journalist of some accomplishment when Bryant was married to a dentist in Portland. After meeting Reed, she abandons her provincial life in Portland and follows Reed to New York City where, with his help, she comes to be a middling writing talent on her own. She is difficult and unfaithful towards Reed, but over the course of the film, she comes to see that Reed is so committed to his radical pro-communist politics that he is unable to adjust to the deteriorating circumstances in Russia, even as it becomes clear that a Soviet worker’s paradise will feature starvation and disease as a normal part of life.

In the film, Reed is presented as a religiously devoted to communism, and he tries to foment in the US a revolution similar to the one that occurred in Russia in 1917. His entire life was dedicated to the radical politics of the period and all of his friends are radicals who distain the United States and it’s cultural norms. There is a lot of late night kitchen table talk about unionizing the world and breaking the hold of religion over the ‘workers’ (radical politics are remarkably stable over time in terms of its core tenets).

Bryant, once so enthralled by such imminent people as Reed, Max Eastman and Emma Goldman, begins to waver in her commitments. She grows as a person but he does not. Perhaps due to her lack of commitment to socialism, she never rivals Reed as a writer, but she surpasses his understanding of the world. When he sneaks in to Russia to garner support for the American communists, the Soviets recognize his value as a propaganda tool and refuse to let him go home. In her only selfless act of the entire film, Bryant travels to Russia to find him. She locates him thanks Emma Goldman, a common friend who has also wised up to the nature of the communists.  

In real life, Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant returned to the United States and carried on their political activities but John Reed died in Russia of typhus, a disease that the Soviets denied was present in their socialist paradise. He wrote a book called “Ten Days That Shook The World” that described in glowing terms the early days of the Russian revolution and it omits the horrors that were occurring and does not hint at the ones to come.

Like ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ ‘Reds’ is at heart a love story told against the brutality of the Soviet period but it also covers the delusional period of early 20th century American radicalism. Reed was so committed to his communist causes that in spite of his obvious love for Bryant, he could not really commit to anything else. Bryant is selfish and self motivated but when she finally locates herself, she tries to pull Reed back from the brink but history has already taken him down the path that will lead to his death. In that way, ‘Reds’ is the greatest anti-communist film ever made. 

The early 20th century radicals spent a lot of time arguing over the finer points of this or that political development but they were untied on at least one thing which was their ardent atheism. They did not believe in Christianity and loudly said so. Rightly or wrongly, they blamed religion for the ‘backwardness’ of the poor they were trying to lead and consequently, ‘Reds’ has no characters like Sister Prejean in ‘Dead Man Walking.’ Sister Helen Prejean is a real person and ‘Dead Man Walking’ was her book about her experience ministering to a death row inmate named Elmo Sonnier. She is a Catholic nun and considers it her personal duty to minister to the poor and downtrodden of Louisiana where she still lives.

Here we came to an interesting crossroads regarding the intentions of Warren Beatty with ‘Reds’ and Tim Robbins who directed ‘Dead Man Walking.’ Both films were made about real people who’s position on the death penalty and communism are well known; Sister Prejean opposes the death penalty, John Reed was pro-communist. Beatty and Robbins have made public statements indicating they hold similar beliefs. And yet one made a film that shows communism as a path to mass tyranny and the other made a film about the redemptive power of the death penalty. How did this happen?

I suspect that these films turned out the way they did because Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins and the casts of these two film are committed artist who’s cause is to seek truth in their craft. The writers, directors, and actors followed the story to its logical place. All involved are stronger artists than they are social propagandists. And so, if Robbins was seeking to covertly create an anti-death penalty movie (as Churgin told me) and Beatty was seeking to show the Russian Revolution in a positive light, they failed. If they were trying to make great stories from the complex raw material of humanity, they did what artists do at the top of their game; they made stories that will stand the test of time and be relevant for decades.

‘Reds’ makes a sharp turn away from the Soviets and Bolsheviks in the back third. Here is a scene with Beatty as Reed and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Both are starving and freezing in her Moscow flat:

The final line by Reed here tells the story: “If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?” Goldman wants to live and will adjust her worldview, even if it means admitting she was wrong. Reed is religiously committed; he is not ready to admit what he has believed and advocated for and wrote about and profited from was all bullshit.

‘Reds’ offers many examples in the final reel that many of the old radicals have figured out that Soviet communism is deadly and the entire façade of intellectual socialism is an indulgence for the privileged. Bryant cheated on Reed with the playwright Eugene O’Neil, who is played brilliantly by Jack Nicolson then at the peak of his powers. In this scene, Bryant drops by his apartment years after she took him up and then discarded him to go back to Reed.

Eugene O’Neil takes his revenge

Towards the end of ‘Dead Man Walking,’ we reach the scene of redemption where Poncelet is off to die and Prejean escorts him to the death chamber. Here we see Prejean follow in the footsteps of her faith by offering to be the last face a double murderer sees before the execution is completed.

John Reed’s life in ‘Reds’ culminates in a confrontation between Reed, who is being held against his will in Russia because he is useful as a tool of propaganda, by Grigory Zinoviev, the commissar that has refused to let him return home. In this scene, both men have traveled to Baku, then an outpost of the nascent Soviets where Reed was to make a rousing pro-Bolshevik speech. He makes the speech but can tell that the translation is not what he’s saying or what he wrote. To the Muslims in Baku, they have been told that revolution means holy war, or as they might call it, jihad. On the train after the speeches, Reed confronts Zinoviev. The pivotal scene is linked below but this is taken from the script and it’s so critical to the film, and frankly to life, that it’s worth seeing in print as well:

REED: Zinoviev, did you do the translations of my speech?

ZINOVIEV: I supervised it. Yes.

REED: I didn’t say “holy war.” I said “class war.”

ZINOVIEV: I took a liberty of altering a phrase or two.

REED: Yes, well, I don’t allow people to take those liberties with what I write.

ZINOVIEV: Aren’t you propagandist enough to utilize what moves people most?

REED: I’m propagandist enough to utilize the truth.

ZINOVIEV: And who defines this truth? You or the party? Is your life dedicated to speaking for…

REED: You don’t talk about what my life is dedicated to!

ZINOVIEV: Your life? You haven’t resolved what your life is dedicated to. You see yourself as an artist and at the same time as a revolutionary. As a lover to your wife, but also as a spokesman for the American classes.

REED: Zinoviev, you don’t think a man can be an individual and be true to the collective, or speak for his own country and the international at the same time, or love his wife and still be faithful to the revolution; you don’t have a self to give!

ZINOVIEV: Would you ever be willing to give yourself to this revolution?

REED: When you separate a man from what he loves the most, what you do is purge what’s unique in him. And when you purge what’s unique in him, you purge dissent.

ZINOVIEV: Comrade Reed.

REED: And when you purge dissent, you kill the revolution! Revolution is dissent!

Here is Warren Beatty’s finest moment on film:

For all its radicalism and politics, this pivotal exchange reveals why the United States has never embraced Soviet style communism. In John Reed, we finally see the American individualist. If America was created by dissent from the monarchy of the British, and that is the dissent he endorsed, then ‘Reds’ is really about John Reed, patriot.

Most of the characters in ‘Reds’ and ‘Dead Man Walking’ are based on real people. Their fates after the period covered in these two movies is instructive.

The Russian Revolution devolved in to murder and killings as the premiere thug of the system, Joseph Stalin, consolidated power and conducted a series of show trials which resulted in the execution of many of the Bolsheviks’ early supporters. Once such casualty was Grigory Zinoviev who is reported to have begged for his life and had to be dragged away to be shot in 1936.

Jerzy Kosinski plays Zinoviev
Zinoviev

Goldman made it out of Russian and lived in the Jewish community in Berlin for a time, blissfully unaware that murderous governments outside of Russia would rise even further and murder all the Jews around her. Nevertheless her distain for the capitalist democracies never waned and she died in 1940 just as a new war that would drive the Soviets to even greater levels of power was taking shape.

Emma Goldman
Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman

Eugene O’Neil went on to become a successful playwright and his autobiographical play ‘Long Day’s Journey in to Night’ which was published after his death in 1953 is considered to be an American classic. He suffered from depression and alcoholism and didn’t make it past 65.

Eugene O’Neil
Jack Nicholson

Louise Bryant also did not live a long and happy life. After Reed died, she traveled and wrote for several magazines and then married another reformed socialist named William Christian Bullitt. Bullitt was the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Like Bryant, he had been a radical in his youth and was an ardent anti-communist later in life. She drank heavily and after divorcing Bullitt, died in 1936 in Paris.

Louise Bryant
Diane Keaton
John Reed and Louise Bryant
John Reed
Final resting place in Moscow for John Reed

Elmo Sonnier was executed for the double murder of two innocent teens in Louisiana.

Elmo Sonnier
Sean Peen

Sister Helen Prejean is still alive, still a Catholic nun and still advocating for the poor in Louisiana and other places around the world.

Sister Helen Prejean
Susan Sarandon as Helen Prejean