Atlas Shrugged Part I

Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead was published  in 1943, and a film version was released in 1949.   It took a bit longer to get Atlas Shrugged to the screen.  Rand's lengthy book, a 12 year effort for  the author, was published in 1957, and 54 years later, Part 1 of a planned three part film version opened (on April 15)  at about 300 theatres around the country.  Parts 2 and 3 are planned for release on tax day of 2012 and 2013.

Thursday night, I was invited by the Chicago Young Republicans to see a screening of the movie, hosted by the film's Co-Producer Harmon Kaslov.  For one night the age limit on "young" Republicans was waived.   Kaslov discussed the difficulty in getting the movie made, comments he also offered in a phone interview with the Illinois Policy Institute:

Predictably, the reviews of Atlas Shrugged in the mainstream press in Chicago Friday were generally awful, and some papers chose not to review the film.  The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern, pledged that he had really tried to be fair and open-minded, before damning the film.  The local  Chicago papers had nice things to say, however, about several movies in the latest run of the Palestinian Film Festival.

I did not grow up as a big Ayn Rand fan, and read  little of what she wrote.  That made me part of a small minority in the group of 50 or so in attendance last night, many of whom seemed to recognize scenes or specific lines, and were smiling or chuckling throughout.  Kaslov  made clear that the film was made with a production team  and actors who wanted to work, and quickly (only 26 days for filming), and with a modest production budget of about $7 million.   Many in Hollywood said they had no interest in bringing Alas Shrugged to the screen because they thought the movie would have little commercial appeal.   That view is consistent with the famous comment by film critic  Pauline Kael that she was sure George McGovern would win the Presidential election in 1972, since everyone she knew (in her tiny corner of the upper west side of Manhattan) was voting for him. 

I don't know if the movie version of Atlas Shrugged will be a commercial success, but 8 million Americans have bought the book, and sales have increased dramatically since Barack Obama became President.  Much of this is undoubtedly due the fact that Obama started running the government much in the way Rand described government officials in Atlas Shrugged -- primarily interested  in redistributing  (government enforced charity), and sapping the success of society's achievers and inventers with taxes and regulations, since achieving equality of results (living arrangements, income and wealth)  was  the highest purpose of government.

Last year I reviewed for American Thinker a fine new intellectual biography of Rand written by Jennifer Burns Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns made clear that Rand lived in a world of ideas and loved intellectual combat.  Avoiding intellectual combat by dismissiveness is how many on the left treat ideas and thinkers from the right side of the spectrum.  As Burns describes, many on the right were also pretty dismissive of Rand in her era, due to her atheism, her opposition to the war in Viet Nam, and jealousy of her popularity with young conservatives.

The movie version of Atlas Shrugged presents an America in decline in the year 2016, with declining oil resources,  wars in the Middle East, and rapidly rising inflation.  Some of the cityscapes look like the bad parts of Detroit or the South Bronx (are there good parts?) . Crony capitalism is the order of the day, with the corporate losers working with  their lobbyists and totally corrupted "policy institutes" and bought and paid for members of Congress, to derail the winners, and insure that the losers in the competitive market, nonetheless  get their fair share of the business.   

Derail is a good word to describe what passes for "managing competition"  in the book and the movie,  since the corporate heroine, Dagny Taggart of rail line Taggart Intercontinental, has to fight her laggard brother to get the company to invest in new track (to avoid derailments and accidents) and to make use of an untested but highly promising new metal alloy for the tracks,  manufactured by Rearden Metal.  It is more than a bit ironic that the result of the  joint efforts of Taggart and Henry Rearden, is a high speed rail line, with long trains speeding along at up to 250 miles per hour. If such a thing could come from private industry without enormous federal subsidies, it might change the thinking of a lot of conservatives about the value of high speed rail.  In any case, the scenes of the trains gliding through the Colorado Rockies are pretty spectacular.

Viewers who are unfamiliar with the story, or Rand,  or the book,  may find the movie confusing  at times; why are corporate executives  disappearing after meeting with the man in the trench coat? Who is John Galt? Do business people really speak that way and admit (proudly)  that their goal is to make money?   It is an entirely different experience, in general,  for those who have read a book, and then see the movie version, than for those who have no idea what they will be seeing.   This may be particularly true for Atlas Shrugged, since it is Rand's fullest exposition of her philosophy of objectivism, and lots of the dialogue are not there just to advance the plot.  

The running time for Part I was 102 minutes, during which the federal deficit increased by just over $320 million, about the amount of spending reductions for 2011 actually realized from the recent budget deal. There are 8,760 hours in a year, and 2 of them are now a balanced federal budget. Rand would be appalled at how far we have moved towards the  "collective good."  

As government grows as a share of the economy,  almost half now financed by debt, a film version of one of the great defenses of free markets, individualism and entrepreneurial creativity  is a welcome addition to the general garbage now playing at the Cineplex.  If Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is a box office success, the next two parts will be made. This is a pretty high stakes opportunity for the conservative film industry, and specifically for the producers of this movie.  Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was a huge box office success for Gibson, who financed the movie himself after it was rejected by the studios.  That movie had an appeal to a large number of observant Christians, despite Gibson's Charlie Sheen-like rants through the years.  I don't know how many objectivist or free market film fans are out there, but it would be nice if all three parts were made.  Maybe Barack Obama will get his chance to purchase the 3 disc box set in his first year as a private citizen again in 2013.

Update: Ayn Rand devotee Charlotte Cushman offers these thoughts:

The book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand has been getting a lot of attention since Obama took office. In 2009 sales were higher than they have ever been since the book was published in 1957.    Why is that? Americans know that they are losing their freedom and are looking for solutions.  And they want answers, real answers.  So many people have turned to Ayn Rand because she is a strong, consistent defender of Capitalism.  Through her revolutionary philosophical ideas she was able to determine why countries eventually fall to totalitarianism and those ideas are brought to light in Atlas Shrugged. 

So when the movie, Atlas Shrugged Part 1, premiered on April 15, it opened in over 300 theatres throughout the country, rather than just some theaters in a few big cities. This was because of grass-roots pressure from people expressing a desire to have the film shown in their area.  The movie also had the support of the Tea Party organization Freedom Works which ran an ad for it.. 

The book Atlas Shrugged is near and dear to my heart. It sounds so trite to say it, because the expression is overused, but Atlas Shrugged changed my life. It is wonderful to live a life without inner doubt and contradictions. Nothing did more for my self-confidence than reading and thinking about Ayn Rand's ideas, which challenges over 2000 years of philosophy.

Therefore I had mixed feelings when I went to see the film.  Would the film be able to capture the essence of the message in the book?  Since many Tea Party people seem to want to see the movie, will they think that the answer to our country's problems will be in this movie?  Will people understand that Atlas Shrugged is not essentially about politics?  That it has a much deeper message?

The movie followed the basic story line in Part 1 of the book and I was glad to see that the movie was good. I wouldn't rate this movie as high as the classics that I love like the Sound of Music or Star Wars, and it wasn't nearly as good as the movie We the Living (another Ayn Rand movie filmed in Italy), but it was worthwhile seeing.  A couple of my favorite parts, the most emotional parts, were when the John Galt line ran for the first time and the ending when Ellis Wyatt destroyed his assets and disappeared. 

I do have some criticisms.  The casting of some of the characters was not good.  Francisco did not come across as humorous, confident and heroic as he should have and James Taggart could have come across as nastier. There was a lack of background information about the history of the relationship between Francisco and Dagny. Unless you had read the book, you would not have fully understood the scene when Dagny asked Francisco for money for the John Galt line. The pacing of the story was too fast at times.  Some of the scenes could have been slower to give the audience more of a chance to think, understand their meanings and therefore feel more of an emotional impact.

If you go to see the movie and you haven't read the book, however, don't expect to get an understanding of Ayn Rand's revolutionary ideas. A few of those ideas are only hinted at in this film, but an unavoidable flaw of any movie of this book is that it couldn't possibly explore the depth of the book unless it was unusually long.  Also, this is just the first third of the story and the producers plan to get into more of the philosophy in Parts 2 and 3. So perhaps if those movies are made, they will include the answer to the question, "Who is John Galt?"

Charlotte Cushman is a Montessori educator at Minnesota Renaissance School, Anoka, Minnesota and has been involved in the study of Ayn Rand's philosophy since 1970. 
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