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Atlas Shrugged

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I went to see Atlas Shrugged with a shrug and little enthusiasm.

I remembered The Fountainhead vaguely. Mostly I remembered the dense prose, and a sense of what...turgidity, if that is a word? I was prepared to walk out on the slightest pretext; there were a number of other movies to duck into to salvage my nine bucks.

I went early, curious to see what sort of coming attractions had been selected to precede it: Sean of the Hannity? The O'Reilly Syndrome? Ann of a Thousand Coulters?

But, no, just standard previews, albeit promoting movies that would not be released in July or Christmas, as if we would remember.

Then Atlas Shrugged began, I must say, with verve.

A riveting fast-paced montage of all the current crises four years on: oil at $37 a gallon, widespread unemployment, food lines, the Mideast aflame, our country adrift. I was firmly fixed in place by such an opening, interested, not thinking of an escape, intrigued. As minutes went by, a compelling story emerged. Atlas Shrugged feels like an old fashioned movie. A bit clunky. No film-school camera moves or odd angles. Displaying old-fashioned acting chops: more Broderick Crawford than Leonardo de Caprio. Effectively told, it builds slowly into an increasingly interesting story line. Indeed, the movie's reality parallels current events so closely that politics may impact your enjoyment level.

It is a world like our world but just missing reality. As in the central theme of strong men and women whose initiative and industry are thwarted by big government run amok. One would think, with such a plot, the plot would be about altruism and wind power being done in by dastardly captains of industry and overbearing apparatchiks, but one would be wrong. Atlas is a movie about railroads and steel, the ribs and heart of an America past. Its images are rarely reflected positively in popular culture: heavy industry and strong-willed people building big things despite all odds. Threatened with financial and personal ruin but persevering to spite the little minds around them. The bad guys of the movie are powerful competitors who don't want their cozy boats rocked and use political corruption to keep the waters smooth. Bureaucrats whose favorite colors are shades of gray, embracing mediocrity as a way of life.

The major themes of Atlas Shrugged seem familiar from recent press coverage about Ayn Rand's rediscovered books. I'm sure I'll get this all wrong, hers are rather deep waters, but she supports the individual against the herd, rejects the state deciding what people should do or produce or invest in or how they decide to find happiness. Her ideas reject the corruption of the political process, are disgusted by the power of the collective, and admire strength. Her books and this movie celebrate a point of view that seems quaint and politically incorrect in 2011, litigated and regulated into a distant memory.

Against all odds, it might still be there though, indicated by the rise of a new populist political movement, verified by November's elections, demonstrated by the improbable events in Madison. There is a Foxian vibe somewhere too, as you watch the movie. I looked for a Roger Ailes cameo, like Hitchcock getting off a bus in the background, but didn't see one, although I thought I saw Andrew Breitbart at the anniversary party.

If Atlas Shrugged, with its Randian ideas, is successful at the box office with a low budget, no stars, and little promotion, I wonder if it could lead to similar movies? Will we be offered the subtle, subversive, small cries against the system movies like the ones from countries in Eastern Europe during the sixties? Movies that proved that a generation of thought control and overwhelming state power could not completely destroy the human spirit?

The most compelling character in the movie is a strong female lead: the improbably named Dagny Taggart. Always impeccably attired, a little black dress, high heels, and a Reardon steel bracelet even on a construction site. She is highly intelligent, decisive, tough, clear-thinking, strong, strong-willed, beautiful and driven. I sat in the dark and wondered what the thirty something women of my acquaintance would think of her if they saw the movie? Played by Taylor Schilling with style and a steady gaze, she is the Atlas of Atlas Shrugged; carrying the world she wants to build on her shoulders. The rest of the actors seem to be from the Stoic School of Acting with emotions (to use a favorite Parkerism) running the gamut from A to B.

By the end I was thoroughly entertained. My thoughts provoked, the allusions to present day America taken to heart and well alluded to, the political battle lines played out on talk shows all day and every night clearly delineated, and I looked forward to what happens next in Ayn's world.

It could be a surprise hit, as inexplicable to some as Sarah Palin or the persistence of a belief in American exceptionalism. It's a movie that makes you realize that this country was built on more than snips and snails and puppy dog's tails, much less on sugar and spice and everything nice. The movie's celebration of unfashionable ideas of personal responsibility, grit, and hard work may strike a chord. Dagny Taggart might become as popular among young women as Lady Gaga.

You don't feel like cheering at the end of Atlas Shrugged, but you're intrigued by what you have just seen. Maybe there is more to our future than deficits, demoralization, and depression. Could we begin another vibrant American century? Can we help those living in fear under tyrannical regimes? Are we committed to increasing the standard of living for all by encouraging people to be responsible for their own lives? Can we unleash the technical and scientific know-how that has always been our birthright to solve what seem to be the intractable problems of our day? Could we? Can we? Will we?

Ask John Galt.