For those of you who are fans of Ayn Rand’s ode to capitalism and brilliance and objectivism, I’m very sorry. For many reasons, but especially tonight because of what has happened to this film. If I didn’t know better, I’d call it a liberal conspiracy to discredit everything Rand stood for by making her ideas even more boorish, heavy-handed, and unpleasant than they already were in written format.
Atlas Shrugged is the story of Dagny Taggart (who I’d normally name the actress here but you wouldn’t know her anyway… ) and her quest to build a railway with the help of Hank Rearden (the guy who was the second in command bad guy in Mission Impossible 2) and his amazing new metal.
To some extent Rand wrote Taggart and Rearden as unsympathetic characters- they don’t have any pathos because they are living their lives of rationality at a higher plane than the rest of us, and therefor are unconcerned about things like feelings. Well, if the actors set out to look like lifeless automatons then bring on the Oscars. But there is no way for an audience to connect with the protagonists, who come off just as unsympathetic as the bad guys. And when there is actually a chance to start feeling for the characters, the film is just so out of its element. I actually had to keep myself from laughing as Taggart cries into the night at what is supposed to be the emotional climax of the film.
And the humanity that does spark between our two main characters resolves in a gratuitous sex scene. You know, if you’re writing this movie for Republican audiences, you might want to ixnay on the exsay, especially when it is adultery between a married man decades older than the woman. But, of course, maybe they’re hoping for a similar effect as Mel Gibson’s The Passion where millions of religious folks repeatedly watched a torture porn snuff film that was supposedly about Jesus (and that made it ok). A couple of people walked out of the theater I was in when the sex scene happened, as though to say “Terrible acting, script, and direction we can deal with, but the sex is where we draw the line!”
Now is the part where I’m going to be nice, as, you know, there are a few moments of brilliance here. Fleeting, but there. Taggart confronting a union boss. The scenic vistas of the Rocky Mountains. Reardon looking at his foundry as new ingots are being smelted and pressed. You know, if they just took those and edited them together in a sort of Koyaanisqatsi fashion, and just called that Atlas Shrugged, I think this might have been a good film. Instead, those are just used as padding (who knew there could be so much padding of stock footage of trains and the Rocky Mountains in a 100 minute film?) between plodding scenes of wooden performance reciting terrible dialogue, the worst of which is saved for overbearing heavyhanded voiceovers that explain the “meaning” of the movie (in case you haven’t figured it out), as though the screenwriter or director, in a fit of conscience, knowing how terrible these lines were, couldn’t bear to actually pretend someone ever spoke them in actual dialogue to another human being.
Oh, and here’s a drinking game for you: anytime someone breathlessly asks someone else “Who is Jon Galt?” take a shot from the flask you smuggled in with you because it’s about the only way to sit through this “film.” Because, frankly, unless you’re familiar with the source material, you’re going to have no effing clue what is going on or why people keep asking about Jon Galt. Kind of like in Ayn Rand’s book. (What? Are you saying poorly written source material may have some correlation to the poorness of this script? That’s certainly one theory….)
This film was in development hell for…. 40 years? They HAD to make a movie and release it before June 15 or the rights were going to revert, so maybe we should only be as judgmental of this as we are of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four or X-men:Origins:Wolverine:The Search for More Colons. On the other hand, this may be the argument for why Rand’s works should not be turned into films. Highly regarded as unfilmable, perhaps this should’ve just stayed that way. The only thing this reminds me of is another supposedly unfilmable piece of dense source material, Allen Moore’s Watchmen. And while Zack Snyder’s 2009 version of the film had a lot going for it, let me explain Atlas Shrugged thusly: What if you took out all the action sequences, all the plot, all the mystery, and all you ended up with was 20 minutes of Rorschach and Nite Owl talking about eating beans and Dr. Manhattan sitting on Mars looking at individual grains of sand? That would’ve been more exhilarating than 99% of Atlas Shrugged.
Now I’m going to go an especially long political tangent here, so if you only care about the film, skip to the last paragraph. But everyone else, buckle up.
I know some of you like Ayn Rand. But her thinking laid the groundwork for the mess we are currently facing in our economy. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, possibly about Rand specifically, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” This botched attempt at filmmaking is that, writ large.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t pieces of Rand’s philosophy that are quite correct. Yes, she’s right- running the economy through forced equalization is a bad idea. But it’s essentially a straw-man argument because no one is actually saying we should do that, at least not within the realpolitik of the United States today or in the last 60 years. Even our Socialist(s?) aren’t talking like that– all they want is health care like exists in other first world countries. So, again, to add to the drinking game, every time they pretend Washington is passing another law called the “Anti-Dog Eat Dog Rule” or “Equalization of Opportunity Act” just…. shrug? I guess? and take a shot and remember that these are beyond the most base ad hominem or straw man of arguments against modern liberalism. No one is actually in favor of these things, any more than if I wrote a book about the “Reverse Robin Hood Act” which steals from the poor to give to the rich and hung that like an albatross around the neck of conservatives and free marketers.
Meanwhile, Rand and her acolytes have been ruing the economy. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Fed for most of the 90s and 2000s, literally sat at Ayn Rand’s feet and was taught by her. And in response to the recent economic crisis, he testified before Congress he was shocked- SHOCKED!- that financial institutions hadn’t pursued their actual rational self-interest and that the only cure was actually more government regulation of financial securities and speculation. Rand’s ideas 0, Real World 1.
Another aspect rarely explored is that one of the methods employed by Ellis Wyatt’s oil company is a method to extract oil and gas from shale. Amazingly, this is not science fiction, it is happening right now. And we can see the effects. In Wyoming, they have worse air quality than in Los Angeles because of the shale drilling. The fracking mess was covered quite extensively in the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which you really should see, so you can witness with your own eyes people lighting their tap water on fire, talking about how sick it’s making them. No, Ayn Rand was not specifically endorsing this technology, but the way it has been brought to market, with exemptions from regulation written into the 2005 Energy Bill by Dick Cheney is the logical extension of her ideas of just letting the producers of the economy do what they do and they’ll regulate themselves. Yep- Ayn Rand’s ideas of unregulated business pursuing their interest without regulation sure is working out. As long as you don’t get cancer or have flammable drinking water.
I took a completely different message from this story: man, the country sure gets messed up when you allow monopolies to run wild. No wonder gasoline costs $26 a gallon! No wonder your railways are unsafe and cause derailments– because the private sector doesn’t do it’s own job of taking care of its own assets. And even worse is when so-called capitalists start getting in bed with lobbyists, funding phony scientific research, and trying to turn popular opinion against new technologies.
Also hilarious? That all of the high speed rail that has be CGI’ed here doesn’t exist at all in today’s United States, but does in Europe and Japan where, and it may shock you to hear this, the EVIL EVIL GOVERNMENT HELPED BUILD THOSE RAILWAYS!!! (A fact which escapes many people is that no major infrastructure project has ever been undertaken in the US without government sanction or aid: the Erie Canal and Baltimore-Ohio Canal? Transcontinental railroads? Public-private partnerships. National highways system? Government built.) In fact, the people most in love with high speed rail today are President Obama and VP Biden, and a bunch of other tree-hugging liberals, and conservatives lampoon high speed rail as a boondoggle. It’s worth noting this was one of the sacrificial lambs in the recent budget negotiations.
So, here’s a story for Ayn Rand: the people who build and operate a bunch of oil pipelines spend megamillions funding a phony astroturf campaign which ends up swinging Congress to their favor, and then they shut down building high speed rail. The real Dagny Taggarts of the world got screwed by the Koch brothers and their oil interests because maybe, just maybe, if people use high speed rail they’ll drive and fly less, both of which require more oil. So Rand’s narrative today rings particularly hollow.
</end political rant>
If you want a contrary opinion to mine, about the only critic out there I could find who didn’t hate this is from the New York Post (surprise, surprise that Rupert Murdoch would like this movie!!!) You can read it here, but even this is the most faint of praise, giving it only 2 1/2 stars. In my book that’s like the B-/C+ of grades. Also, let me take issue with one thing he wrote, which was “Atlas Shrugged,” a mega-fable that is to capitalists roughly what “To Kill a Mockingbird” is to liberals…” I’m actually offended at that comparison, as first being a liberal and a capitalist are not mutually exclusive, and I don’t see Mockingbird as political or philosophical as I do just based on the beauty of the human experience. If you’re so jaded that tolerance, racial equality, and standing against injustice are the sole sphere of liberals, modern conservatism has gone waaaay off-track. (And I mean that in the sense that it has.) But fine, I’ll take your bait. As I liberal, I proudly take To Kill a Mockingbird, by any objective metric one of the greatest works of the 20th century and films of all time. I’ll take Gregory Peck’s Oscar winning portrayal of Atticus Finch. You can have this cast of nobodies, and a boring, plodding, heavy-handed, boring, confusing, boring, self-indulgent, poorly directed and even more poorly written mess of tripe that you call Atlas Shrugged.
I can’t hold back this critical pun any longer: it’s a train wreck. Pursue your rational self-interest elsewhere, I plead with you.
Bring on the hate. And the teabagging.