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Movie Review: ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part 1′

April 20, 2011

Taylor Schilling is Dagny Taggart, a strong, independent woman keeping the family railroad business (railroads being the dominant mode of transportation in AS’s alternate future due to restrictive oil prices) alive despite the irresponsibility, short-sightedness, and political exploitation of her co-manager and brother James. A major disaster on one of the lines leads Dagny to replace the tracks with a new kind of steel alloy developed by like-minded entrepreneur Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), who shares Dagny’s independent spirit and is similarly being worn down through a miasma of regulations spearheaded by corrupt politicians and competitors. And against this backdrop is the ongoing disappearance of the country’s most productive members and the pervasive question, “Who is John Galt?”

I didn’t get a screening invitation to the film; I paid to see and went with a friend and die-hard fan of Ayn Rand. And while I agree with Rand on many of her points, both my friend and I left the theater disappointed. Atlas doesn’t quite deserve the scathing reviews it’s been getting, but it’s not a good film either—regardless of where you stand on Rand’s philosophy.

I think the major problem is that it expects you to know Rand’s philosophy beforehand—or at least have read and appreciated the book. And I don’t doubt that fans of the book will be delighted simply to see Francisco make his first appearance or Rearden expostulate the virtues of individuality with a sleazy journalist—they know the context—but few others do, and the film does no service to itself and Rand by requiring the viewer to fill in the blanks. This is perhaps best exemplified in an offhand line where Rearden casually vilifies altruism. To someone who knows Rand’s views on altruism, it makes perfect sense, but for anyone who doesn’t, it’s going to seem callous and alienating. It’s not that these concepts and issues can’t be made relatable (which is not to say “dumbed down”), it’s that the filmmakers barely even try.

Myself and others have been criticized for our confusion and subsequent dislike of the Harry Potter and Twilight films by fans who dismiss those criticisms as mere ignorance of the source material. How many times have you been scolded with the phrase, “Well, you need to read the book”? The same applies here, and my response is, “Then why watch the movie?” An adaptation should not be companion piece; it should stand on its own, as its own. It doesn’t have to appeal to everyone—that would render it a heap of soulless placation—but it should tell its own story, be an offspring, not a clone.

And I’m even more incensed with AS because I personally feel that Rand’s warnings against the dangers of government suppression of the individual spirit has merit, importance, and would make for a compelling film. But in the 50-plus years since the novel’s debut, you’d think the screenwriters had ample time to come up with a screenplay that works around Rand’s utter lack of subtlety.

For the first 70 minutes the dialogue is exposition after exposition. So much so that you may as well be reading the screenplay than listen to anyone talk. And it’s less people talking with one another than one setting another up for a long speech on their personal worldviews, whether solicited or not. True, that’s how they speak in the book and is a cornerstone of Rand’s style, but it’s a ponderous style that resists interest. Even if it works in a book, the medium of film has the advantage of visually broadcasting its characters’ thoughts and intentions, an advantage the screenwriters ignore. The scene where Dagny trades her extravagant necklace for a bracelet of Rearden steel with his wife is a good example of how the film dwells on forced speech to explain what could be said in a meager few shots. Likewise, a dialogue polish and some speech trimmings could have saved the movie.

Yet after the first half, the film actually does get better. Initially AS is never quite sure of what it is, drifting among the genres of political thriller, rags-to-riches, romance, high-society drama, mystery, so on, and skirting the compelling elements of each one—until Dagny leaves her company to found her own. From there the film finally takes off and even effectively weaves in the story threads of Dagny’s venture, her budding romance with Rearden, and the looming clouds in Washington.

In all, I can’t recommend it for anyone new to Rand, and that’s the disappointment my friend and I shared. There’s something good in there, and some issues and ideas worth discussing. I only hope Parts II and III follow the second half of Part I and dare to stray from the book, or during the interim the filmmakers at least ask themselves what they’re doing: Are they trying to bring Ayn Rand to a mass audience or are they simply servicing the fans? If it’s the latter, why make the film at all?


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11 Responses to “ Movie Review: ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part 1′ ”

  1. Catina Varrato on April 20, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Good post. I learn something more difficult on completely different blogs everyday. It will all the time be stimulating to read content from different writers and apply a bit one thing from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether or not you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a link on your net blog. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Bob Lipton on April 21, 2011 at 2:48 am

    You’re absolutely right. And I’m almost ashamed now of my own positive review, but my excuse is that I’m a four-time reader of AS. In fairness to myself, I did warn readers that a prior reading of the book would be essential to their enjoyment. Or nearly so. Thanks for making some excellent points.

  3. Peg Alexander on April 21, 2011 at 7:17 am

    I found the movie to be very good and to have been written in the 50s, somewhat scary and to the fact of what’s going on in our world today.

  4. DougW on April 21, 2011 at 8:52 am

    The problem with this movie, and with all of Rand’s work, is the completely ridiculous assumption that power derived from capital doe not corrupt,a nd therefore needs no checks and balances against it. Well, that is simply wrong. It has been proven time and time again, from the abuses of big business in the early 1900s (coal mines and slaughetrhouses, anyone?) to the Enrons of today. ALL power corrupts. ALL power needs checks and balances so that those who have power don’t modify the rules in such a way that they can never lose their power. In Rand’s silly world, a private company could buy the land around your home and tell you that you can not travel over their territory unless you pay them all your assets. You can stay home and starve, or pay up and be broke and get out to eat. Your choice. But there shoudl be a law preventing that right? OK, so who decides what laws ‘suppressing business’ should be allowed and which ones shouldn’t? Not government certainly, becasue they are evil, remember. It’s all so stupid. ALL complex systems which distribute or aggregate power need checks and balances. Period.

  5. Laurie on April 21, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Here Here, DougW. There almost seems to be a self imposed ignorance when it comes to the down side of capitalism. When Rush rants about the Unions, he conveniently ignores the fact that it was capitalism run amok that gave the much needed rise to the unions in the first place. Reardon would have no compunction having child labor working for pennies a day if he could, but then neither would the politians worry about costing mainstream americans their last dimes for a gas tax, or dictating what kind of car to drive. And it’s always us stuck in the middle.

  6. JohnN on April 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    In general what you are stating is not wrong; however, you miss the point of Rand. Rand’s point is that capitalism (in its purest form) is the bedrock of inovation, job creation, risk taking and the ability of someone to profit from their skills and strengths. She also firmly believed that those that believe that people (and corporations) should be propt up by the government despite their inability to compete is wrong.

    Clearly, power can corrupt (not always, but commonly). This is true for both the private and public sector, but I believe more so for the public sector for they take on no risk and can make laws that cannot be defeated through competition. The public sector is able to squash the private sector – not the other way around. This is Rand’s message.

  7. Aghast on April 21, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    And the company that sequesters the poor soul in his home is getting great PR for it, right? How is this a smart move for them? To kill its customer?

    @Laurie: And Rearden would have healthy and well-motivated workers by paying them pennies for their valuable labor? How would his company compete with other companies that have workers who can actually feed themselves and their families?

    Try thinking through more than one step in the game. Self-interested capitalists have good reasons for not doing idiotic, self-destructive things like your straw-man examples, and it’s not a convincing argument that “CAPITALISM IZ BAD” – dumb capitalists are bad, but luckily in capitalism dumb capitalists go out of business, if the competitive market is there to do the job.

    There are times when the incentives of capitalists and society are at odds – and regulation is necessary in those cases (good examples are external costs, e.g. damage to coastlines from oil drilling). But a company that uses its power to harm people with no benefit to themselves is doomed to a short life, unless it’s being propped up by crony capitalists (health care industry, banks, airlines and GM – what do they have in common? all failing, all desperately being supported by our government). This is not capitalism and it’s exactly what Rand warned against.

  8. JerryP on April 22, 2011 at 8:01 am

    One would think that a movie that touts the success of the individual if one only works hard and with dedication would be able to stand on its own. I suspect even Rand would be disappointed with this feeble effort. I’ve read her works, thinks she has a lot to learn and knows the movie sinks lower than the thought.

  9. Tom K. on April 22, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I am going to see the movie tonight. I have read both the reviewers bad reviews and the fans’ raves. I tend to believe this movie will be like the evangelical movie, Fireproof, and the dozens of Christian films I’ve seen at church through the years. Meaning it will sacrifice good storytelling for the chance to preach to the choir. Rand did the same thing in her books. Unrelentingly so. Also, she was Russian. Ever try to read Tolstoy? Dostoyevsky? Lead on paper.

    I have never drank the Ayn Rand kool-aid. I discovered her writing through the Nathaniel Branden book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem. For those who think her philosophy is impossible to live in the real world (and in many, many ways it is) and if you are interested in seeing how one might live it in a more or less integrated way, read that book. Branden worked very hard to integrate her objectivist epistemology into a healthy, positive psychology. He avoids many of her extremes so in many ways it works. But, as Branden always does with his patients, you have to work it out for yourself.

    Here’s to what I hope is a good movie.

  10. shawn on April 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I have not seen this movie yet and just recently read the book. I do not understand how this book has been embraced by libreals. How can they not see they are the looters. Taking money from people that earned it and giving to people who havnt and never will, that is the premis of librealism. Yes the promote technoiligy but that is all they have in common with the doers of the world. I don’t understand how anyone could possibley think she saying we need to raise up against the republicans. The are not the leaches of the world its the people think everything should be fair, the libierials. I can not comprehend how anyone could see it diffrent, I guess you could if you’re like the looters and can fool you’re little, febile,insure brained into thinking youre way is moral. I am totally astonished that liberals don’t understand that they are looters feeding off the only rational productive people of the world and if we don’t let them it wouldn’t be faaaiiirrr, like what’s fair is what keeps the human race warm ay night.

  11. BrettL on April 25, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    @Laurie: What type of idiot worker would stay at a job for pennies an hour unless they have no self worth? Nobody is “entitled” to a job. If you don’t like the one you have, quit. Go get another one. Start your own company. But to blame someone else or some big evil “capitalist” for your own shortcomings because you are no better than the job you have, well that goes against all human nature to be a better person and makes you no better than a simple celled parasite.

    People these days need to quit leaching off of the system. They need to quit blaming others for their own shortcomings and do something to better themselves ON THEIR OWN. Or get comfortable making my fries.