All right, you’ve heard me say this before. As a writer, a reviewer and an entertainer I strive to be as “all access” as possible and I try to avoid bringing political debate into the public forum (I’m all for it privately). But sometimes something comes along that practically DEMANDS it. Last time it was AN AMERICAN CAROL. And now? Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel ATLAS SHRUGGED has finally been brought to the screen, owing to a combination of recent political events and the imminent expiration of the movie rights!
It was now or never, so thus it came about that this property (well, the first third of it, anyway), once eyed by Hollywood A-listers, came to us with a television cast and a director off of ONE TREE HILL. It did respectably in extremely limited release, but the reviews ranged from fair to dismal, and the attempt to expand the release caused the film to sink like a stone. The producer has allegedly blamed the critics for the film’s failure and suggested that he won’t bother with Parts 2 and 3 after all. But hold on here… the critics who liked the film the most (Mick La Salle among them) were the ones who disagreed with the film’s philosophy but thought it was a decent movie all the same. Nobody came out and absolutely loved the film, but nobody was zapping it simply for disagreeing with their politics, either. The only thing pretty much everybody agreed on was that ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART 1 was going to be impossible to follow for anyone who hadn’t actually read the book.
So where do I fit in? As it happens, I have read the book. Quite recently, in fact. That’s the nice thing about being a moderate. Not only do you avoid fights, but if you’re a good listener, you can find plenty of things to benefit you on both sides of the political fence. I belong to no party and adhere to no single system—and I like it that way. There are things to be gained from more than one perspective—what I dislike the most is extremism at either end. So when a conservative friend of mine suggested that I read ATLAS SHRUGGED in the light of today’s landscape (and when I remembered that I had a copy handy), that’s exactly what I did.
Well, the one thing that people on both ends of the spectrum can agree on is that ATLAS SHRUGGED is a right-wing, conservative, cautionary fantasy which depicts the end of society as we know it thanks to the evils of liberalism. The movie updates the action to the future (2016 to be precise) but keeps the details pretty much the same. A series of global gas/oil crises have staggered the economy and essentially rendered rail freight as the only viable mode of bulk transportation (including that of oil). Despite her good-for-nothing brother holding the presidency of the family railway business, Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) does the actual work, and a fresh rail catastrophe makes her realize that the only way she’s going to salvage her business relationship with oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt is to repair her railway immediately. Enter Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) of Rearden Steel. He’s just perfected a new super-metal that’s lighter, stronger and cheaper than steel, and it’s just what Dagny needs to refurbish her railroad and save her company. It’s a match made in heaven… except that jealous industrialists, lobbyists and politicians use every devious machination in the book to shut them down… because it’s just not fair to everybody else! Ah, but while all this is going on, all of the upright, wealthy, self-made conservative businessmen in the country are vanishing from sight—after being approached by a shadowy, noirish figure in a jacket and hat. What goes on? All together now… WHO IS JOHN GALT?
(Well, literally, he’s director Paul Johansson in the movie. Just thought I’d mention it because you never see his face clearly and because the rest of the story might not even be filmed.)
I don’t agree that the film is necessarily impossible to follow if you haven’t read the book—it does require you to pay attention, of course. And I was quite impressed with the largely unknown cast (including some familiar character actors such as Jon Politos and Michael Lerner)—they brought Rand’s characters to life quite vividly, I thought. And while the CGI was obvious, the triumphant train ride to which this section of the story builds is sufficiently exhilarating. In all, it’s quite a decent adaptation—but the majority who considered the book “unfilmable” had a point—you will lose a lot of the meat in the process. You’ll meet the apparently reckless billionaire playboy Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) and you’ll learn that he was Dagny’s first love. But you won’t hear his compelling speech about the true value of money, and you won’t find out why he once slapped Dagny, or why she felt that she deserved it (yes, there are quite a few controversial issues our female author deals with in the book). You’ll see a headline stating that “Ragnar the Pirate” has struck again, but you won’t know that what he actually did was sink a boatload of D’Anconia copper without taking any for himself. And so on and so forth. The book was largely philosophical and quite sparse with the action, but it was still quite a compelling read and ultimately led to multiple conflagrations, torture, murder, and even a science-fiction doomsday device.
But of course we’re only dealing with the first third of the story in the movie. We get to the first conflagration and the latest crucial disappearance, and that’s that. So the critics do have a point—this would be a hard sell for anyone who hasn’t read the book, as it truly takes anticipation of the story to come to maintain interest in future installments. I applaud the effort all the same—if you think you want to see this, you probably should—but if the story does sound interesting to you, you really ought to read the book first… or instead. If you want a smaller-scale (but equally effective) rendition of a very similar theme, I highly recommend a TV-movie based on David Mamet’s THE WATER ENGINE, also involving a potentially world-changing invention that has to be squelched by the “powers that be.”
Okay—to move on, I’ll have to go into spoiler territory, so feel free to stop reading here.
You may recall that I’ve always been a fan of the Destroyer paperback series created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir (yep, the Remo Williams books). I always enjoyed their action, humor and fantasy elements. The satire contained in these books came from a conservative standpoint, and I could usually take that in stride, but the tone became harsher as the series progressed (especially after various ghost writers took over from the original creators). Eventually, the series yielded some truly embarrassing volumes in which all of the conservative, Republican characters were upright, immaculate, saintly and completely incapable of any wrongdoing, while the liberal, Democratic characters were a bunch of incompetent, clueless, pants-crapping troglodytes. They even eventually got around to killing off a caricature of Michael Dukakis for no greater crime (that I could tell) than daring to run against George Bush (unsuccessfully, at that). Now, while Rand has a more prestigious literary pedigree than Murphy and Sapir, I could see plenty of that attitude in ATLAS SHRUGGED. When Hank railed against the idea of giving his worthless relative a job in his company just because he “needed” it, I understood him completely. On the other hand, I rolled my eyes at the liberal literati who believed that only a small portion of the population should even be “allowed” to read their books, and I laughed out loud at a Congress that could effortlessly pass a bill preventing any man from owning more than one company—in the name of “fairness.” (Seriously, when was the last time you saw Congress gang up on ANYTHING?) Honestly, most of us have probably wished that one should have to pass an I.Q. test in order to vote—I’ve even wished that certain parties had to pass an equivalency exam of sorts before publicly reviewing movies that they really knew nothing about. But we know that isn’t going to happen, and that efforts to make laws like that would run smack dab into Constitutional challenges.
Far more telling is the utter lack of human compassion in Rand’s world. Hank endures a loveless marriage, and he only kindles a fire for Dagny when they successfully complete a major business deal (marriage vows mean nothing next to mutual profit here). Any thought of charity for anyone is dismissed with utter contempt throughout. And as for John Galt? His master plan essentially involves condemning the entire country (if not most of the civilized world) and countless innocent human beings to chaos, violence, terror and death… until such time as he and his like-minded elite can re-emerge and remodel the world in the name of conservative capitalism. I don’t know about you, but that seems a tad extreme to me… I recall the finale of ESCAPE TO L.A. in which Snake Plissken hit the “666” and did pretty much the same thing to the world—I couldn’t see the greatest mass murderer in human history as the hero of the film for some reason. (Oh, but the book contains a doozy of a passage in which the authorities threaten Galt by telling him that they’ll have no choice but to start euthanizing the senior citizens (to make things easier for the young and able) if he doesn’t cancel his plans. Umm… does the phrase “death panels” sound familiar?)
Well, by now I’m sure I’ve said enough. I was not converted to Rand’s philosophy by ATLAS SHRUGGED, but I’m not sorry I read it and I’m not sorry I saw what might be the only attempt at a film adaptation. The prospect of debating ATLAS SHRUGGED is a lot more interesting to me than the prospect of witnessing the latest “alien invasion” scenario, at any rate. Here’s something original, thoughtful and worth talking about. Where you take it is entirely up to you.
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