Atlas Shrugged, Part 1
Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Graham Beckel, Michael Lerner
(20th Century Fox; US DVD: 8 Nov 2011)
That sound you hear is Ayn Rand rolling over in her grave. As a matter of fact, the forced philosophical face of the so-called Tea Party Movement has been doing so much crypt spinning as of late that she’s probably burrowed halfway to China by now - and anyone who knows anything about the author turned academic realizes how horrid that prospect would be - especially for her. After growing up in and around the Russian Revolution, Rand moved to the US. There, she became a famous writer and a controversial thinker. She hated Communism with a passion (good) while equally despising the ‘virtue’ known as altruism. Instead, she argued for a man’s ability to maximize his own abilities, without impediment, which when filtered through the fervent call to Conservatism that seems to be swallowing the Middle Class, has become a wounded war cry for social upheaval. Or something like that.
It only seems fair then that a flat, lifeless film (the first in a proposed trilogy) of Rand’s most ridiculous novel, Atlas Shrugged, is out and about this election season. A long term labor of love for its producer, it attempts to turn the tale of a failing railroad concern in a dystopia America into a rallying cry against - well, you name it: social security; welfare; entitlement programs for the poor; big government; corporate backstabbing; personal greed; familial distrust…the list goes on. What it doesn’t do is entertain. Or engage. Or even enrich. It would be one thing of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 offered something to think about. Instead, it’s a strident political diatribe that has neither its purpose nor its inferred intentions in the right Right place. As a matter of fact, the movie is so meaningless it almost argues against its preposterous polemics.
The first thing fans need to be aware of is that this effort is indeed the first volley in a proposed continuation. As a result, the main hero of the novel, an enigmatic man named John Galt, is nowhere to be seen. He is referenced and seen in silhouette, be he’s more a goal for a future journey than a present concern. What we do have to put up with is a faulty future shock where fossil fuels are dwindling and the locomotive is once again the transportation mode of choice. One of the country’s biggest companies -Taggart Transcontinental - has seen a major accident almost destroy their bottom line. A fight between brother/CEO James (Matthew Marsden) and his VP sis Dagny (Taylor Shilling) leads to a split. She goes off to work with inventor Hank Reardon (Hank Bowler) and his new brand of steel. He stays behind and conspires to put his sibling out of business.
Like a mini-series which forgets to forge a reason to care, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is nothing short of Melodramatics for Dummies. It takes all of Rand’s ravings - good, bad, indifferent, well thought out, poorly formed - and finds them to be nothing short of superficial apples of scholarship gold. While many admired her for taking very stern and very serious positions, not everything a so-called philosopher dreams up is admirable. There were many times, especially late in her life, when Rand found herself in the firing line, dodging bullets aimed at her by confrontational interviewers and reporters, all in the name of discrediting her approaches - and many times, she did not survive the examination. But a film of her fictional application of same shouldn’t be equally condemning. In this case, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 all but buries her.
Remember when your parents warned that, if you can’t say something nice about someone or something, you shouldn’t say anything at all? The makers of this movie should have taken heed. By turning what some consider an epic into a made-for-TV trial, complete with down to the D-list talent, everything feels cheap - including the core themes. Even worse, the size of the story requires either expert truncating, or as in the case of something like The Lord of the Rings, an expert understanding on how to turn size and scope into something interpersonal and identifiable. Clearly, such things are outside the professional frame of reference of director Paul Johansson (an actor taking on his first feature film). He can’t see his way around Rand’s contrivances, and when faced with her equally perplexing melodramatics, he shrinks and then succumbs.
Indeed, Atlas Shrugged itself is a poorly crafted work of literature. It’s like a group of teenage MENSA members got together and dreamt up a way to showcase an already slipshod viewpoint by using every stereotype, cliche, and formula in the Big Book of…Big Books. Then, just to make sure we get the point, we have the main concepts beaten into us by some of the most heavy handed writing this side of a Russian romance. At least the film version avoids the flowery prose to uncover the truth about Rand - she’s n a nominal scribe at best. Unlike Thomas Pynchon, who allows for a kind of artistic free association the minute he puts words to paper, Ms. Fountainhead is all obviousness. And since they treat Atlas Shrugged like some manner of gospel, the film adaptation reveals such a lack of potential.
With the recent announcement that the next installments will indeed be made (all box office woes be damned), the minds behind Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 clearly believe they are preaching to the converted. What they really don’t understand is that a movie like this doesn’t speak to its constituency so much as confirm their already wrongheaded interpretations. Rand spent much of her later life writing actually works of proposed philosophy, explaining and reexamining so of the ideas she forwarded early on. Here, she’s as shrill as an angry idealist can be. There is nothing wrong with adopting some else’s ideas as the foundation for your own. Ayn Rand would probably have a big problem with much of what the Tea Party has to offer. Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 may not fully suggest that, but consider the source…and that sound you hear in the background.