Atlas Shrugged Part 1

Paul Johansson, 2011
Miscellaneous review
Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Surprisingly nonterrible acting. Low budget effects don't really hinder the movie. Casting is acceptable.
Reasonably faithful adaptation that nonetheless misses the point.
Offers nothing to transcend it's limited audience.

Well, it's tax day. What else could I do but review Atlas Shrugged: The Movie?

Like Lord of the Rings, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is a balky, unwieldy, rambling epic that is nonetheless deeply beloved by its devoted fans. Unsurprisingly, given their length and the scope of their stories, both acquired a reputation for being unfilmable. Well, we see how that turned out.

The simplistically titled Atlas Shrugged: Part I, it will probably not surprise you to learn, is closer to Ralph Bakshi than to Peter Jackson. The film itself, in some form or another, has languished in development hell for several decades and it is suggested to what degree of accuracy I know not that this particular envisioning is merely an attempt to keep the rights to the source material. So perhaps we are not supposed to expect too much.

This is fortunate.

First, let's start with the good. The casting is, given the low budget and scope of the movie, not particularly terrible. One's first thought is that all of the actors look just a little like someone else, as though they had been poorly xeroxed a few times. It doesn't take too long to get past that, and with limited exception all the film's actors turn in reasonably decent performances.

They also do a good job with their characters, in the sense that fans of the book will likely to be relatively pleased with the on-screen versions of their characters. Of particular note, I think, are Matthew Marsden's James Taggart and Rebecca Wisocky's Lillian Rearden, who both manage to capture such nuance as their characters have. Wisocky brings Rearden's contemptuous relationship with her husband to life well, and Marsden is more than presentable as a man who has been given power, but not the knowledge to know what to do with it. To some degree, it's unfortunate that there is not likely to be a sequel, because I would like to see what they do with the characters as they develop.

The writing is acceptable; the dialogue, much of which is taken straight from the book, is nothing to write home about, but it generally serves its purpose without being nearly as heavy-handed as one might have feared going in. Unsurprisingly, it's the more didactic parts of the novel that fall flat, presumably because the writer couldn't figure out how to compress Rand's notorious verbosity into the punchy dialogue required of movies. A meeting between Grant Bowler's Henry Rearden and Armin Shimmerman's Dr. Potter is particularly painful; Shimmerman seems uncertain of what he is supposed to be doing and Bowler appears similarly flummoxed about what he is supposed to be believing.

This leads the way to the largest executional failing of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, which coincidentally points the way to the largest conceptual failing of the movie. Executional first: the plot wavers without cohesion; if you're familiar with the book, you understand why things are happening the way they are, and why characters are behaving in the way they do if you lack this familiarity, you're liable to be completely lost.

Atlas Shrugged is frequently described as being unsubtle, but this critique is not, I think, wholly justified. Parts of it are inarguably blunt; one of the central characters is given a three hour long speech, transcribed verbatim, that serves as an explanation of parts of Rand's political philosophy. However, while its purpose is to serve as a bludgeon, the book itself is a fairly tightly woven combination of a number of stories and characters. If you have 1100 pages to meander through this, it's not too difficult to put together that kind of epic. Doing it in 90 minutes is another struggle altogether.

Here, director Johansson falls woefully short. Like in Star Trek, the movie is littered with in-jokes and references to the source material. Here, however, one feels that there is no overarching narrative tying it all together. Things merely happen, without motivation and without resonance. The result plays like a Time-Life "Greatest Hits of Atlas Shrugged" and the overall story suffers heavily as a result. The viewer is left asking too many questions, to which there is no answer (or perhaps merely a cryptic "Who is John Galt?" in this universe a phrase meant to signify that one should not ask questions for which there are no answers).

Some of these scenes turn out well. The symbolic bridge made of Henry Rearden's new miracle metal, for instance, is suitably grandiose. On the other hand, scenes that should be used to build character, like the jewellery trade between Dagny Taggart and Lillian Rearden, are instead used merely because fans of the book expect them to be there. Because they have no real meaning, we don't care about the characters and they don't act in organic ways they do what they've been told by the director, not by their own internal logic.

Books with rabid fan bases make heavy demands on their audiences, and Johansson has given in too far. He has been willing to make certain changes to the story (no surprise, given the conservative backing of this film and its PG13 rating, but the eventual sex scene between Henry Rearden and Dagny Taggart is far, far too tame) but overall takes too great a pride in his adherence to the source material and never bothers to step back and see if this was actually a good idea.

I feel, actually, that Johansson has completely missed the entire point of Rand's novel, which is what I see as the largest conceptual failing of this movie. Johansson makes a relatively common mistake, and boils the movie down to a story of supermen fighting against titanic odds to do... well, whatever they feel like. In this case, naked capitalism.

This reading of Atlas Shrugged isn't unheard of, but I don't think it's really borne out by the source material. People tend to boil the novel down to the story of its main characters and treat them as superheroes indeed, superheroes from the creations of Stan Lee to The Incredibles are often discussed as objectivist parables. Because the characters in question are businessmen, the novel is then reduced further to simply a celebration of the free market.

Rand's point, however, is not to say "capitalism is good" but rather "freedom is good"; that "living for others" is tantamount to slavery and the best way to live life is to live it for yourself not hedonistically or destructively, but not always putting the needs of others first either on the grounds that you are the best person to judge what is right and wrong for, well, you. This is, incidentally, also the point of Ricky Nelson's "Garden Party" and about a billion other stories about following your heart and/or dreams.

It happens that one of the clearest ways to demonstrate this principle, and the effects of this principle, is by focusing on businessmen almost certainly because the clearest opposition to the principle of "live for yourself" is socialism, which is deeply tied to business. This lesson is also more difficult to teach with artists instead of businessmen because the corollary in art, censorship, is upheld by virtually nobody.

This is not to say that Rand disliked capitalism or money, but it's important to note that they were, for her, means to an end rather than the end in itself. Her valuation of currency (gold currency in particular) was that it was objective. Where Marx viewed the commercialisation of labour as a downside, Rand saw it as a boon: for her, it meant that everyone was on a level playing field.

That being said, what she truly valued was the human mind. The simple desire to make money wasn't sufficient; indeed, without intellect and drive it was contemptible. Therefore it is not simply businessmen whose virtues Rand extols: the voices of wisdom in the book are judges and philosophers; her utopia is populated with actresses, sculptors, doctors, and writers. She makes it abundantly clear that these people have found fulfilment in any number of activities and callings. One large subplot that begins early on in the novel involves Richard Halley, a composer of classical music. It is a subplot that is entirely absent from the movie.

Absent, too, is the sense that there is anyone who is not a superman. This is curious, since an everyman, Eddie Willers, is the novel's narrator and in many ways its main character. In the novel Atlas Shrugged, it is clear that there are people of ability, pride, dedication and self-assuredness at every level of society from executive officers down to engineers. Rand's philosophy is explicitly not one of supermen there are dozens of people like Dagny Taggart described explicitly in the book, and it's made plain that even Dagny Taggart cannot operate on her own; she's part of a global, human network of people who make the world run.

In the movie, there is none of this subtlety and none of this sense that any of the characters could be real people. Dagny Taggart simply does what she wants to, whenever, whyever, and wherever she wants to. Eddie Willers is reduced to the role of a glorified secretary; everyone around pales in comparison next to the towering giants of the main characters.

In this fashion, Johansson has managed to misread the fundamental point of Atlas Shrugged and redeems it through only mediocre execution. The movie itself is average, in a vacuum, but its inspiration is far less direct than the title would have you believe. It's probably worth watching on television if it comes around, but the skip the trip to the theatre. Atlas Shrugged is a movie that could've benefited from the big screen in the exact way that Lord of the Rings or, for that matter, Watchmen did. This, however, ain't it.
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