By Robert Gore
Fifty-four years after publication, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, at least the first third of it, is finally a movie. I found the 1949 movie adaptation of The Fountainhead disappointing and was expecting something similar with Atlas Shrugged. That was a misapprehension—Atlas Shrugged is astonishingly good.
Efforts to make the film had been caught between the rock of Hollywood and the hard place of Rand herself. The world capital of insincerity hates Rand. Her logic eviscerates political sophistries conspicuously worn to prove intellectual depth and morality. On her terms—reality and reason—Hollywood has never touched her ethics of rational self-interest and defense of capitalism and strictly limited government, instead taking refuge in distortion and lies or resorting to puerile insults and sneering sarcasm.
Rand insisted on final script approval. Without knowing why she rejected every script, she may have had trouble with an issue that will bother some ardent Rand fans about this movie. Significant portions of Atlas Shrugged read like a tract. While those passages are correct as far as political philosophy, they are problematic in terms of dramatic structure. The interior monologues and speeches meticulously delineate Rand’s views to a leave-no-stone-unturned level of detail and argument. She cherished these passages, regarding her novel as a vehicle for the philosophy they espoused. However, they interrupt the flow of the story, render her characters as little more than allegorical spouters of speeches and leave the reader feeling that parts of the plot serve no purpose other than as a platform for idealogical points.
Obviously these are not fatal defects for the millions, including me, who love Atlas Shrugged. However, what’s problematic in a book can be deadly in a movie. Director Paul Johansson and the screenwriters made an astute decision, one they may not have been permitted if Rand were still alive. She was a powerful dramatist. She wrote plays and screenplays, and in contrast to the speeches many of her scenes are stellar examples of the writing maxim to show, not tell. Johansson chose several that translate well to the screen. One of Rand’s most famous monologues is by Francisco D’Anconia, on the moral meaning of money, at a party for industrialist Hank Rearden and his wife, Lillian. It was a joy to read in the book; it would have slowed the movie to a crawl had Johansson not wisely omitted it. Some Rand purists will be outraged, and Rand might have included it—she loved that monologue. However, Johansson chose to demonstrate another, more subtle philosophical point from the same party—that value and beauty are created by the productive efforts of man—when Dagny exchanges her diamond necklace for Reardon’s wife’s bracelet of Reardon steel. A cat fight between philosophical opposites is a natural for the screen—monologues and soap boxes, even when the viewer agrees with the point of view expressed, rarely work.
Johansson faced other issues. When to set the movie? Keeping it in Rand’s mid-20th century setting might have given it the feel of a period piece. Instead, he put in the year 2016. The setting captures Rand’s ominous portrayal of malevolent statism, but gives it a fresh-as-bailout-debt binge-and-recession headlines feeling of impending doom. Rand’s heroes were primarily successful businesspeople, which suggests a group in at least their 40’s and 50‘s. Business success usually takes time. However, movie audiences prefer youth and glamour and so did Rand. I suspect she would have approved of the casting of younger actors for Dagny Taggart (she wanted to cast Farah Fawcett in the role), Hank Rearden, and Francisco D’Anconia (although she never would have tolerated Francisco’s mustache and beard—she despised facial hair). Graham Beckel, who does a commendable job as Ellis Wyatt, and Michael O’Keefe, who does a not so commendable job as philosopher Hugh Akston, serve as necessary counterweights to the youth movement.
Taylor Shilling and Grant Bowler capture the stylized essences of Taggart and Rearden—intelligent, competent, honest and direct—and the inevitable physical attraction between two brilliant and attractive entrepreneurs. Rearden’s marriage to vixen Lillian, ably played by Rebecca Wisocky, is glaringly implausible, but that’s a flaw in the book and Johansson stayed true to this crucial plot linchpin. Jsu Garcia as Francisco comes off more as a rock or movie star than the natural heir to a South American copper empire. Perhaps the cover of the Rolling Stone treatment can be justified given Francisco’s disguise as a worthless playboy. However, Rand showed that under it all he was a businessman, which the movie has yet to do, other than citing his reputation as an astute investor. I would suggest dramatizing the scene from the book in which Francisco helps Rearden fight an accident in his steel plant to make the point.
It’s always easier to write or portray villains, and Matthew Marsden, Jon Polito, Michael Lerner and Wisocky embody the doublespeak, evasiveness and resentment of the good-for-being-good of Rand’s bad guys and gals. They could have been pulled straight from contemporary figures. Mauch, Boyle and James Taggart are recognizable prototypes for Dimon, Immelt, Blankfein, Frank, Geithner, McCain and Obama. The philosophical manure Rand’s characters peddle is indistinguishable from that spread by many of today’s eminences.
Atlas Shrugged is an audiovisual representation of the book, but it cannot be the book or recreate the experience of the book. It must be judged as a movie. As such, it does an outstanding job. The philosophical battle between Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and altruistic statism is clearly joined, not by resort to lengthy speeches and inaccessible interior monologues, but rather from Rand’s trademark dialogue and symbolically important scenes. The two protagonists are dynamic, visually arresting and have the fascinating, force-of-nature quality of bold and brilliant individualists. Movies move quicker than novels and the pace and tension of Atlas Shrugged never falter. Literary license has been taken, but the focus is on the main plot—the strike—and on the essential subplots—the John Galt line, the relationship between Taggert and Rearden and Francisco’s seeming betrayal of the good. Books are cerebral; movies visceral, although the great ones make you think about them afterwards. This movie had the audience laughing and clapping, and I’ll bet they’ll be thinking about it afterwards. When the new John Galt Line makes its first run over the first bridge made of Rearden steel, I’d be surprised if I was only one in the theater who wanted to stand and cheer.
Importantly for those of us interested in advancing Rand’s cause, this movie will appeal to people who have never read her works. My thirteen-year-old son is in that group and he liked it. The mainstream media commentary will be a predictable hodgepodge of tendentious nonsense. I always advise people to ignore commentaries, read Rand’s works and judge for themselves. I offer the same advice for Atlas Shrugged, Part 1—make your own judgment. You’ll have a lot of company at the theater. Atlas Shrugged is a great movie and it will do the box office necessary to insure the production of Parts 2 and 3, barring repeal of the 1st Amendment.
This review was first published on straightlinelogic.com, 4/16/11.