Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged the Movie: Part 1 (2011)

Perfect transition from book to screen __ 10/10
Review by Brian Wright
Atlas Shrugged

Dr. Potter (of the State Science Institute): Why do you want to struggle for years, squeezing out your gains in the form of pennies per ton, rather than accept a fortune—in immediate government money—for Rearden Metal (to keep it off the market)? Why?
Rearden: Because it’s mine. Do you understand the word?

Novel by Ayn Rand
Screenplay by John Aglialoro
Directed by Paul Johansson

Taylor Schilling…  Dagny Taggart
Paul Johansson…  John Galt
Grant Bowler…  Henry Rearden
Matthew Marsden…  James Taggart
Edi Gathegi…  Eddie Willers
Jsu Garcia…  Francisco D’Anconia
Michael Lerner…  Wesley Mouch
Graham Beckel…  Ellis Wyatt
Patrick Fischler…  Paul Larkin

Unfortunately, the ‘quotes’ section on the Atlas Shrugged IMDb movie site is yet bare. So from Atlas Shrugged the Book (ASB) I condensed a plot-related dialog between hero Rearden (Grant Bowler) and Sleazy Government Scientist Guy to illustrate a key Randian idea: rational, hardworking egoism as pride of ownership. Like the book, the movie is about ideas, certainly about concepts. There’s no way around it. Fact is, very few people will attend this movie who don’t care about ideas and don’t live—at least several hours per week—at higher levels of mind. [Pride of ownership is one of the simpler ideas that appeals to high-concept Rand fans and special commoners both, and I give screenwriter Aglialoro and director Johansson kudos for including the scene.] Ref. here for my comments on Atlas the Cultural Phenom.

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I’ve read a smattering of reviews and comments from friends, among which the consensus seems that the acting is on the stiff and ‘one-dimensional’ side. Also, Robert Tracinski, editor/publisher of The Intellectual Activist, contends the literary material of ASB is tailor-made for the screen—with New York City skylines, vibrant natural vistas, powerful images of industry and high technology, primal human urges and ambitions, strong attractive heroes and heroines, and fecal-ooze-dwelling villains—so any modest Hollywood talent should be able to turn out a blockbuster… which in his view Atlas Shrugged the Movie (ASM) ain’t. So I’m asking, “Why would those of us who love ASB and the philosophy of Objectivism[1] expect ASM to have the lush, stellar perceptual-emotional quality of Dallas or Dynasty? Or even the passionate epic spirituality of The Thorn Birds?

Can’t happen. Shouldn’t happen. Different kettle of fish. These other fine and highly popular TV/movie works flesh out characters; the Randian moviemakers—or any of perhaps three persons in filmbrewing history (who have delivered ideological content)—must flesh out ideas. That’s a job! Especially, with notions like egoism and creative individualism—that don’t jibe with popular worldviews. Consider Rand’s-book-derived movie, The Fountainhead (1949), which cast two big stars Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, and was directed by King Vidor (Oscar-nominated five times over a four-decade period). You know what? Except for a caveat on Gary Cooper’s age and elocution, they ‘done good,’ real good. Rand’s first movie delivers everything it can have delivered: emotional fuel and conceptual content. So, too, her second, nearly exactly as it needs to be.[2]

Emotional Fuel

We shouldn’t diminish the creative talent behind ASM for failing to produce an emotional-perceptual gem in an emotional-perceptual medium. The question is—just as for The Fountainhead—how well they fleshed out a conceptual and ideological gem in an emotional-perceptual medium, typically intended for the uncritical masses. On that scale, I elatedly hand out A+s all around: screenwriter, director, casting supervisors,[3] set designers, actors, special effects artists, composers, musicians, and camera people. The espirit de corps, not to mention élan vital, infusing ASM leaps from the screen like a dollar sign made of Rearden Metal. They are all heroes, if only for doing their chosen professions superlatively.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1—the full movie consists of three segments, this year, then 2012 and 2013—features Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler): proud, capable captains of industry trying to keep the country alive. She runs a railroad, he makes steel. At every turn their efforts to build a new rail line (of technological-marvel Rearden Metal) are blocked by the government and its allied corporate insiders. On top of that, good men keep quitting for no apparent reason, and disappearing. It’s a classic struggle of good vs. evil, though not in those terms commonly understood. Herein lies the meat of Rand’s philosophy… and qua morality play the emotional fuel ‘our people’ will derive.

Regarding the acting: just as Patricia O’Neal did a ravishingly intelligent job as Dominique in The Fountainhead—O’Neal disparaged the role as ‘unbefitting’—Taylor Schilling inhabits Dagny as no other. I found myself nodding appreciatively, “That’s exactly how Dagny would step off the page… and, if not, how she should.” Schilling is a hot Dagny, yet warm. Uncharacteristic of Rand’s literary figures, screen Dagny has a sense of humor, as when she chides her posturing CEO brother Jim (Matthew Marsden) that when she leaves he “may actually have to learn how to do real work.” Bowler as Hank Rearden creates a similarly human, though fully heroic, character as well. The protagonists speak clearly and calmly, with a constant joie de vivre in their eyes regardless of circumstance. Whether or not the lead actors have immersed themselves in Rand, their achievement in ASM is extraordinary and magnificent.

The story, complex and mysterious, makes sense through every scene. Placing the action in the not-distant future (2016)—with newscast narrative justifying train technology and paralleling the economic tribulations of modern America—is another stroke of genius. It’s refreshing seeing the values and virtues of industrial production, engineering excellence, and business courage rendered in the flesh. [The average bloke believes the means of human life are ‘just here,’ ‘no big deal,’ like an inheritance to be divvied up by the powers that be (PTB).] The small touches—captions flashing to identify the latest man striking, dimming New York City lighting inside and outside, giving the city a Detroit-street look, the pontificating dreariness of political-class villains—pay large dividends in authenticity.

Sex, Love, and Technology

A final glowing word or two on three key elements of film. [Small Spoiler Alert! Small Spoiler Alert!] An area where ASM improves on ASB, believe it or not, is the coming together of Dagny and Hank. In the novel, Dagny doesn’t project sexual interest in Rearden until its consummation, while Hank is so conflicted—’up tight’—in his feelings toward her that a normal guy would become unable to consummate. [Welcome to Ayn Rand and grandiose sexual longing.] Fortunately, in the movie, man and woman display genuine affection from the gitgo, smile a lot in each other’s presence, and become obvious they really like each other ‘that way.’ Ages-old meet-cute and hunka hunka burnin’ love. A joyous experience, accompanied by scintillating dialog rarely heard in film or life. Normal. Fun.

As for technology, the visuals on Rearden Metal and depiction of a new engine running on static electricity bring back why I personally chose to redirect college curricula through engineering. Those were heady times, in so many ways. The heroes and heroines so inspiring, so powerful. They remain so today, in ASM equally. A lot of water and mind-control/mind-destroy have gone under the bridge in four decades, but it’s still the same old story. If we build it they will come, old and young alike. I’d almost wish to see a qualification for being allowed to see the film:

“Atlas Shrugged is intended solely for those who care about reason, freedom, and values, and who are willing to embrace such virtues with an active conceptual mind. If you don’t care, and don’t want the hassle of raising mental focus, please enjoy a complimentary popcorn and soft drink while we escort you to any of our 12 other more palatably commercialized theater boxes.”

[1] In a nutshell, Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy: a) Metaphysics: Objective Reality; b) Epistemology: Reason, c) Ethics: Self-Interest, d) Politics: Laissez-Faire Capitalism (not corporatism), e) Esthetics: Romantic Realism.

[2] Make no mistake. ASM is a tsunami of fresh air that will blow off the entire current pseudointellectual class hierarchy of the West. These decaying would-be ‘opinion leaders’ are sh**ting royal frisbees; their day is done.

[3] Small reservation on casting Political Correctness: Ellis Wyatt does not fit the Randian mold of ‘tall, slim, young, and good-looking’ and Eddie Willers is black. (!) “In art one ignores the inconsequential.”

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