A Review of Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?

By Robert Gore

Making Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged into a movie, even one of multiple parts, is monumentally daunting, not just because it is epic, but because more than any other book written in the twentieth century, it explicates ideas. Movies are not the natural medium for ideas, books are, usually nonfiction tracts. Rand’s magnum opus was the foundational statement and defense of her philosophy, objectivism. Disregarding usual literary practice, she had her characters delineate that philosophy in a series of long speeches, most fully in the lengthy broadcast by John Galt. The key question in Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?, the finale of the movie trilogy, was how its makers would handle that speech.

The three movies have had, disconcertingly, different casts each time, but Kristoffer Polaha as Galt is a strong contender for the best performance by any of the actors. (His chief competition would be Jason Beghe as Henry Rearden in Part Two and Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt in Part One.) Unlike some of the actors, Polaha delivers his lines not as self-conscious incantations of a strange, obscure sect, but with the understated confidence of a man who knows he’s telling the truth. Ayn Rand often wrote and spoke of the “sense of life” implicit in dramatic works, creative choices, and people’s personalities. The sense of life of Polaha’s Galt is the absolute confidence of a man supremely competent in philosophy and technology; fully committed to reason, his values, and the discovery of truth; who thinks, speaks, and acts accordingly. Reality is never faked, giving Galt clarity and grandeur. His compelling rendition of the climactic, albeit dramatically shortened, speech is the highpoint of the movie.

The movie’s dramatic structure coalesces around the romance between Galt and Dagny Taggart. Laura Regan is not as strong as Polaha, although she gets stronger as the movie progresses. In one great scene, she announces that she will leave Galt’s Gulch, and Galt harshly tells her that she must swear to not reveal its existence, its occupants, or the strike. Regan subtly conveys Taggart’s discomfiture at the realization that for Galt, the Cause transcends the Romance. In one somewhat weird scene, she pleads, through a closed door, for Galt not to return with her. It would seem that these two titans would address each other face-to-face. A problem with the novel was Taggart’s obstinacy; it never seemed quite plausible that it took her so long to see the light. That problem remains in the movie, but at least it amplifies viewers’ emotional satisfaction when she finally takes the oath.

The action moves well and sustains attention. Most of the Gulch actors do a good job with limited screen time. Doctor Thomas Hendricks gets more time in the movie than the book, seemingly to get in some jabs at socialized medicine. The director, James Manera, and the writers and producers were certainly aware of the cinematic danger of filling the movie with speeches, and the last twenty minutes have the pacing and tension of a good thriller—the heroes heroic; the villains villainous. One quibble: the many mustaches, beards, and GQ-type unshaven faces are incongruous, given Rand’s well known aversion to facial hair, and Ellis Wyatt’s waxed handlebar mustache is simply ridiculous.

A more substantial criticism concerns sins of omission that only those who have read the novel would detect. The movie did not seem long and there were certain dramatic scenes and dialogue that could have been profitably added to it; even Galt’s speech did not have to be so short. The suicide of Cheryl Taggart, James’ wife, seems like a hurried snippet, rather than an integral part of the story. It could have been a more fully developed subplot, along with James’ affair with Lillian Rearden. The manipulative vixen never puts in an appearance in this movie, but was one of the more interesting villains in the first two. Galt’s confrontation with Robert Stadler seems tailor made for the movie, but was not included.

Philosophically, Rand would almost certainly have objected to the thematic omission of religion; all three movies stay resolutely focused on the political and economic. In the book, Galt spent pages decrying mysticism, irrationality, and faith. Rand was an atheist, which makes many conservatives who would like to embrace some or all of her political and economic views queazy. Perhaps the movie’s makers are trying to broaden its appeal, which probably also explains cameos by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Ron Paul, but in terms of fealty to the book, the omission is a gaping hole. The cameos, by the way, do little for the movie, but that’s another quibble.

The final Atlas Shrugged movie is the best of this excellent three-part effort, especially in light of the time and money constraints their creators faced. It is a shame the trilogy did not receive the full Hollywood treatment—big budgets, extensive advertising, and widespread distribution—but fear and loathing of Rand run deep in Tinseltown. Part three will be pilloried by the usual snakes, and may garner less of an audience and have a more limited run than its predecessors. Over time, however, the movies will bring Rand’s seminal and important novel to the attention of those independent souls who ignore serpentine attacks and think and see for themselves. That gives them far more enduring value than Hollywood’s usual glop.

Ayn Rand hoped that Atlas Shrugged would prevent the dystopian future it portrayed. On current trends that hope will not be realized. At the end of Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?, the lights of New York City go out. The only one that stays on is Lady Liberty’s torch: a beacon—this darkness too shall pass. The lights are going out, but when civilization turns them back on, Atlas Shrugged—book and movies—will be there for those who would honor and restore logic and liberty.

This review was originally published on straightlinelogic.com, 9/13/14.

An additional comment concerning Atlas Shrugged, Who Is John Galt?

This was a post on galtsgulch.com, a website maintained by the producers of the Atlas Shrugged movies, in response to another post by poster xthinker88 on 9/20/14.

By Robert Gore

The comment by xthinker88 asks the most important question: how does a movie of a book that has been read by millions, that is the longest running 20th century success story in American fiction, that still sells more than many so-called best sellers, and that spawned a radical new philosophy, how is it possible that it does such meager box office? I wrote a generally favorable review, but finding out that I won’t be able to take my mother to it tonight because the theater has pulled it after one week has prompted a mental failure analysis.

I may not be the one to properly conduct this analysis. After all, my novel, The Golden Pinnacle, is still a few sales short of one million, so perhaps I’m not qualified to talk about selling a dramatic work (although I take some comfort from MikeMarotta’s quote on creative genius from Ludwig von Mises). However, I ask the question: what did Ayn Rand’s fiction (not just AS) have that the movies lacked?

Remembering when I first read The Fountainhead, what kept me turning the pages far into the night, that almost literally burned a hole into my brain, was the recognition of so much truth, stated so well and with such obviously pointed disregard for popular conceptions or what the man and woman on the street’s reaction would be. From Howard Roark telling the dean why the architecture taught at his school was hogwash to his speech at the trial, scene after scene was bold, innovative, and most importantly, revealing of unacknowledged truth–how people really are, how society really works. It shed pretense, pomposity, prestige, and all those other false gods the mass of men and women spend their quietly desperate lives trying to attain. I was about to set myself on the same course, and am still amazed and grateful that I discovered the uniquely radical revelation that is Rand.

I, and others, have noted that important components of Rand’s philosophy, most particularly her atheism and rejection of religion, were omitted. Speeches were shortened and marquee names were given cameo appearances, presumably to give the movie more “mainstream” appeal. However, these moves didn’t capture either the mainstream or most of those who read and loved Rand’s novels. I think the movies’ creators would have done much better if they had, like Rand, ignored what the experts and marketing people say movies should be and followed her lead.

It is Rand’s ideas that captivate and it is her speeches that convey those ideas. I was not bored in Part 2 with Rearden’s speech in court or d’Anconia’s money speech, or Galt’s speech in Part 3; I was disappointed that they were so short and undeveloped. Conventional movie wisdom says avoid long speeches, but maybe that’s because Hollywood screen writers don’t have much to say. This is Ayn Rand, and she had a lot of earth shaking things to say. The speeches have to be edited, of course, but don’t boil them down to something that sort of kind of conveys what she meant, but hurriedly moves on to something else lest the audience gets bored. Go after what should be the movies’ natural audience–Rand readers–they are intelligent and they want the speeches they found riveting when they read the book. Not only should the speeches that were used have been more fully developed, but more, notably Ragnar’s speech to Rearden when he returns his gold and d’Anconia’s speech to Rearden on the meaning of sex, should have been included.

Rand readers want her philosophy, the whole philosophy. By focusing almost exclusively on the political and economic, Rand is rendered a mouthpiece for essentially a Libertarian agenda. However, Rand changed lives because she changed people’s personal philosophies. How can the movies stay true to Rand’s books without mentioning the terms “selfishness,” “altruism,” or “mysticism?” They can’t. The essence of objectivism is reason and the avowal that man is an end in himself, and reciting Galt’s formula a few times is nowhere near enough to illustrate the implications of what objectivism actually means.

In the last analysis, I think the commercial failure of these movies stems from a mistake Rand herself did not make: playing to the crowd. They didn’t get the crowd, and they didn’t get Rand’s readers, the natural, no-need-to-market-to audience. To get the people who were excited about Rand’s boldly visionary novels and philosophy, the movies would have had to have been boldly visionary. As I acknowledged in my reviews of all three, the movies had their merits. However, boldly visionary they were not.

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