In 1915, married socialite Louise Bryant encounters the radical journalist John Reed for the first time at a lecture in Portland, Oregon, and is intrigued with his idealism. After meeting him for an interview on international politics that lasts an entire night, she realizes that writing has been her only escape from her frustrated high-society existence. Inspired to leave her husband, Bryant joins Reed in Greenwich Village, New York City, and becomes acquainted with the local community of activists and artists, including anarchist and author Emma Goldman and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Later, they move to Provincetown, Massachusetts, to concentrate on their writing, becoming involved in the local theater scene. Through her writing, Bryant becomes a feminist and radical in her own right. Reed becomes involved in labor strikes with the “Reds” of the Communist Labor Party of America. Obsessed with changing the world, he grows restless and heads for St. Louis to cover the 1916 Democratic Convention.
During Reed’s absence, Bryant falls into a complicated affair with O’Neill. Upon his return, Reed discovers the affair and realizes he still loves Bryant. The two marry secretly and make a home together in Croton-on-Hudson, north of New York City, but still have conflicting desires. When Reed admits his own infidelities, Bryant takes a ship to Europe to work as a war correspondent. After a flare-up of a kidney disorder, Reed is warned to avoid excessive travel or stress, but he decides to take the same path. Reunited as professionals, the two find their passion rekindled as they are swept up in the fall of Russia’s Czarist regime and the events of the 1917 Revolution.
The second part of the film takes place shortly after the publication of Ten Days That Shook the World. Inspired by the idealism of the Revolution, Reed attempts to bring the spirit of Communism to the United States, because he is disillusioned with the policies imposed upon Communist Russia by Grigory Zinoviev and the Bolsheviks. While attempting to leave Europe, he is briefly imprisoned and interrogated in Finland. He returns to Russia and is reunited with Bryant at the railway station in Moscow. By this point, Reed is growing progressively weaker as a result of spotted typhus. Bryant helps nurse the ailing Reed, who eventually dies.