Low on Entertainment, Off the Charts in Ideology
ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART I, Rocky Mountain Pictures, 2011
Before getting to Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the new movie based on early chapters of Ayn Rand’s famous novel, I’ll take the pledge and swear the oath: I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Objectivist, and I don’t share the mindset associated with that philosophy, if in fact it’s a philosophy.
This doesn’t mean I am without sins. I’ve read a number of Rand’s books, and while I like to believe my reading was prompted by open-minded intellectual curiosity, it may really have been a nervous desire to know how the enemy thinks. Rand herself is no threat: she died in 1982, so she’ll never be a Tea Party candidate, and her most widely read books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, appeared way back in 1943 and 1957. But her political and economic ideas gained a lot of clout during the Reagan era — for people who despise government, her minions peep out from its inner circles surprisingly often — and libertarians, who crop up everywhere these days, are often Rand fans without the atheism. All this makes me understand how critic Edmund Wilson felt when he admitted, “I’m fascinated by that horrible woman.”
I’ve been more amused than fascinated by her, and my low opinion of her values is even lower now that I’ve sat through Atlas Shrugged, an adventure in tedium that would surely have disappointed Rand, a lifelong movie fan. The screenwriter is first-timer John Aglialoro, who also produced the picture, and the director is Paul Johansson, an actor with limited experience behind the camera. (He also plays John Galt, the story’s hero.) They take the fairly interesting events of the novel’s early chapters and turn them into a string of perfunctory plot twists registering close to zero on the suspense meter. The acting, dialogue, and visual style are consistently wan. All of which is beside the point, since the movie’s raison d’être is not art or entertainment but — you guessed it — ideology, pure and simple.
The action takes place in 2016, when the price of gasoline is $37.50 and the United States is poor in everything but governmental hubris. The heroine is Dagny Taggart, who runs her family’s railroad company with James Taggart, her brother. Dagny is sleek, sophisticated, uncompromising, and focused like a laser on the business’s bottom line. She’s also increasingly vexed with James, who has a mush-minded habit of thinking occasionally about people instead of profit. A third major character is urbane Henry Reardon, whose metal-making empire has developed a new kind of steel that’s stronger, lighter, and way, way cooler than the old kind. Dagny needs the steel to revitalize her railroad. Henry needs the railroad as a customer for his product. They reach agreement in a trice, and spark romantic fires in each other (she’s single, his wife doesn’t appreciate him) while they’re at it. Everybody wins! Capitalism rules! Unfettered market forces are so excellent!
But unhappiness awaits, because those markets aren’t as unfettered as we thought. Benighted adversaries are bent on starving, poisoning, and ultimately destroying the glorious engines of private enterprise. If you’ve read a single page of Rand, you know what shapes these night-crawlers take — they’re government bureaucrats, labor-union leaches, trade-association meddlers, and egalitarian do-gooders, feeding off the contributions of their gifted, brilliant betters like the substandard parasites they are. Dagny and Henry make their bargain; oil magnate Ellis Wyatt joins their splendid enterprise; and instantly the villains leap into action, passing pernicious laws and ridiculous regulations – no one is allowed to possess more than one company, for instance, and Colorado pays a special tax so it won’t be richer than other states. Like every government action, these measures penalize the rich in order to benefit all the moochers, looters, and beggars who aren’t smart or strong enough to accumulate wealth and power on their own. Everybody loses! Collectivism reigns! Protecting the interests of the poor and vulnerable is so odious!
Atlas Shrugged is what filmmaker Orson Welles used to call a Mr. Wu movie, referring to an antique play where everyone talked about the enigmatic Mr. Wu during the first act, building keen anticipation for his belated arrival on the stage. Here the Mr. Wu is John Galt, a figure so mysterious that a query about his identity — “Who is John Galt?” — has become a common catchphrase meaning “Who knows?” or “Why ask questions that can’t be answered?” Every mention makes you more eager for him to appear. But since Atlas Shrugged presents only the first part of Rand’s story, it’s a Mr. Wu movie where Mr. Wu never shows up! We get a few glimpses of someone who might be him, and it stands to reason that he’s connected with a main element of the plot, whereby a succession of hugely successful tycoons inexplicably abandon their businesses and vanish from society. If you haven’t read the novel, though, you’ll have to wait for a later installment to find out what’s what. In this way Atlas Shrugged recalls the Saturday-matinee serials of yore, only more labored and lumbering.
The awfulness of Atlas Shrugged continues a trend, since the cinema has never treated Rand very well. This is ironic, since she was born in Russia in 1905, around the time when Russian film came on the scene, and she loved movies all her life. Fleeing the rise of Soviet communism, she reached Hollywood in 1926 and applied to legendary producer-director Cecil B. DeMille for a screenwriting job; she also worked as an extra in his 1927 epic The King of Kings, a cast-of-thousands spectacular about Jesus that used religion (her bête noir) to make money (her holy grail) at the box office. Rand kept plugging away at screenplays, stage plays, novels, and nonfiction as she developed her pseudo-philosophical ideas and gathered a growing band of acolytes, protégés, and boyfriends.
Her own motion-picture efforts added up to very little, but a few Rand-inspired movies are worth noting. The Fountainhead is a 1949 melodrama adapted by the author from her eponymous novel, directed by King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper, who sometimes seems bewildered by his dialogue. No fewer than five writers worked on an adaptation of her 1936 novel We the Living, about the horrors of the Russian Revolution, for an Italian production released in 1986. An underwhelming documentary about her, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, debuted in 1997. Rand once discussed possibilities for Atlas Shrugged with Hollywood producer Albert S. Ruddy, who saw Faye Dunaway as Dagny, flanked by Robert Redford as Galt and Clint Eastwood as Reardon, a high-octane threesome by any standard. Compared with that fantasy, Johansson’s Atlas Shrugged is a dinky thing indeed.
Not surprisingly, reviews have been scathing. Roger Ebert called the picture an “anticlimactic non-event,” while New Yorker critic Richard Brody found it “comically … flavorless” and Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal said its craftsmanship is “barely professional.” I think they’re too easy on the picture. At this writing it’s doing reasonably good business, though, thanks partly to support from Tea Party conservatives, who have apparently forgotten that even ubercapitalist Alan Greenspan, a personal friend and longtime follower of Rand, had a major change of heart when the financial crisis hit in 2007.
The appeal of Rand’s ideology to American right-wingers is a somewhat strange affair, since it has components abhorred by many conservatives. In addition to replacing her Jewish heritage with militant atheism, for instance, she disparaged Christianity as a cult of suffering, saw abortion as an inalienable right, and wrote in Atlas Shrugged that there is “nothing of any importance in life — except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that.” So much for the kind of work you do, and the effects it has on other people.
“All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat,” she added, “are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues.” Think about that the next time you hear from a Rand disciple in high office — when Rep. Paul Ryan talks about revising Medicare, or Sen. Rand (!) Paul talks about government conspiracies to control light bulbs and toilets, or Rep. Ron Paul talks about almost anything. Remember too that according to Rand biographer Anne C. Heller, today’s fervent Rand followers aren’t just apathetic about ecology but actively opposed to environmentalism, sneering at evidence of climate change the way Rand sneered at evidence linking smoking to cancer. (She kept on smoking, too.) And when Republicans hack away at the social safety net, bear in mind that Rand collected Social Security without a qualm and relied on Medicare when she had surgery. For lung cancer, as it happens.
While it would be nice to shrug off Atlas Shrugged and its goofy notions, Rand’s current influence on Republican pols, Tea Party activists, and the radical right in general makes it a movie progressives shouldn’t ignore. I think certain libertarian ideas raise interesting questions about aspects of American government, law, and public policy; but to get to the thought-provoking bits you have to strip away the bizarre spin Rand gave to pretty much everything she touched. If anything could give liberty a bad name, her crabbed, cranky libertarianism would do the job all too well.