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Michael Shermer

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Atlas Shrugged, But You Shouldn't

Posted: 04/15/11 10:29 AM ET

A review of Atlas Shrugged Part 1, a film by John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow, screenplay by Brian Patrick O'Toole and John Aglialoro, directed by Paul Johnasson, based on the novel by Ayn Rand. Opens April 15, 2011. 102 minutes. PG-13. Limited release.

After decades of fruitless efforts to bring Ayn Rand's epic novel Atlas Shrugged to the silver screen, the project has finally come to fruition with the first of three installments set to open on tax day 2011, a symbolic date for libertarians and assorted other champions of liberty. With a mere fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster budget of only $10 million, the producers who gambled their own money and time, John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow respectively, have produced a film that even the most ardent Randian would agree was true to both the author's words and ideas. But is it a film that will drive the uninitiated to Rand's novel and philosophy? Hard to say, although the million plus downloads of the film's trailer on YouTube and the 700+ self-made videos by fans proclaiming "I am John Galt" are indicators that, blockbuster or not, Atlas -- the Greek god who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders -- is not yet shrugging.

The release of the film is also timely with Rand's resurgence of influence driven in part by Tea Party firebrands who at their rallies have posterized memorable Randenalia, such as "Atlas is Shrugging", "Who is John Galt?", and the über-Bondish "The Name is Galt. John Galt." Stimulated in part by the recession and subsequent government bailout -- which Rand watchers are quick to point out was predicted in Atlas Shrugged half a century earlier--sales of the novel skyrocketed in 2009, with its 300,000 copies putting it in competition for sales with the top 20 new novels that year. That is saying something about a half-century old 1,183-page novel chock-a-block full of lengthy speeches about philosophy, metaphysics, economics, politics, sex and money.

Featuring no-name actors well cast to suit Rand's black-and-white portraitratures of good and evil in business and government both (she was as critical of businessmen who use government pull as Adam Smith was), viewers are free to follow the narrative arc of the story and soak in the ideas delivered through verbatim quotes from the novel without being distracted by the stardom of an Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron, purportedly vieing for the role of Rand's heroine Dagny Taggert, Operating Vice President of Taggert Transcontinental -- the literal and metaphorical vehicle for the novel's ideological message, delivered through a plot best described by the novel's original working title: The Strike.

By now the plot is so well known that it is no spoiler to note that Atlas Shrugged is a murder mystery, not about the killing of a human body, but of the slaying of the human spirit. The mysterious assassin -- the "destroyer" as he is called -- is John Galt. He said he would stop the motor of the world, and he did -- ideologically -- by going on strike against the moochers and looters who demand payment for pull. Galt's strike then spreads through his clandestine influence on the other captains of industry and men of ideas, who join him in some mysterious place called Atlantis, while all around them there is a panoramic collapse of civilization under the weight of incompetence.

Part 1 opens with the beginning of the collapse, setting the scene of a dystopian society pulled apart as Galt's strike takes hold. The producers did an admirable job of compressing a hundred pages into a few minutes of news-reel footage truncated to set the stage for Dagny and her business partner (and eventual lover) Hank Rearden -- played by the perfectly cast Taylor Schilling ("Mercy") and Grant Bowler ("True Blood") who really do appear destined to end up sleeping together--to struggle mightily against the collapse, not understanding that it is they, not the looters, who are ultimately guilty for the downfall.

This apparent reversal in causality is the fountainhead of Rand's narrative arc that holds the storyline together throughout countless side trips and peripheral characters. Rand calls it the "sanction of the victim." The inept plunderers would not get away with their appropriation for long were it not for their victim's sanction of the system in which they work. The more Taggert and Rearden fight for their companies against the arrogating bureaucrats, the longer it will take for the inexorable demise of a system based on demanding something for nothing. Galt pulled the plug early when the labor and creativity behind his ingenious motor was pronounced by his bosses at the Twentieth Century Motor Company to belong to the people in the classic Marxian bromide: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." It is this principle that the strikers are striking against.

Once the pacing of the film settles in and the plot begins to develop, fans of the book can watch their favorite heroes and villains utter many classic lines and famous dialogues from the novel (sans the lengthy speeches that simply do not work on screen). To those uninitiated in the world that Rand created, however, much of what passes before them on the big screen may be lost without a field guide of characters, relationships, and why they matter. Despite the producers' fidelity to the novel, 102 minutes is just not long enough for character and relationship development, plot intricacies and connections, and especially for proper absorption of the deeper philosophy behind the ideological avatars.

Characters and their relationships are truncated from dozens of pages in the book to a furtive glance or two-line exchange on the screen. In the book, for example, Dagny's first love, Francisco d'Anconia, warrants an entire chapter to trace his journey from the industrial triumph of his family's copper business to a party hound and ladies man who seems to be intentionally destroying his fortune (and yet he paradoxically pronounces in the book: "Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth -- the man who would make his own fortune no matter where he started. If an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroys him."). In the film Francisco (well portrayed by the handsome Jsu Garcia) is a mere background player who leaves viewers to wonder if we are suppose to pay attention to what he is doing and saying (we should, but only readers of the novel can possibly know that).

The bad guys in the film are mere cardboard caricatures of what were already pasteboard mockups of evil in the novel; we are suppose to hate them for what they are doing to Hank and Dagny, but cast as pudgy pencil-mustached cigar-chomping villains it's hard to believe they could evince such cunning and calumny to bring down the world's greatest producers. Perhaps the film's brevity was a result of its limited budget, or the desire to keep the pacing fast, but unfortunately much is lost in translation. (The Harry Potter films range 150-160 minutes, enough to allow J. K. Rowling's sprawling prose to unfold visually at a comfortable pace. Why not give Rand more breathing space?)

These shortcomings aside, Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is a good film. John Hartigan's special effects -- most notably with the dramatic 250-mph run of Dagny's train on the new John Galt Line made of the blueish-green Rearden Metal -- were spectacular. Elia Cmiral's score was fitting an epic story. And the choice to set the film in 2016 instead of the 1950s allowed the writers to tie in current events related to the recession and bailouts -- with truck transportation and the airlines financially restricted because of excessive fuel prices and America returning to railroads as the bloodline of commerce. It could happen.

Who is John Galt? He is the film's principle avatar for Ayn Rand, without her all-too-human flaws. Who is Ayn Rand? She is the mind behind the philosophy of Objectivism, which she once summarized while standing on one foot:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

In Objectivism, (1) reality exists independent of human thought, (2) reason is the only viable method for understanding it, (3) people should seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake and no one should sacrifice himself for or be sacrificed by others, and (4) laissez-faire capitalism is the best political-economic system to enable the first three conditions to flourish. This combination, said Rand, allows people to "deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit."

The mistake made by Atlas Shrugged's heroic lovers Taggert and Rearden is that they allow themselves to be victims and to sanction the power of their own executioners. This is the deeper meaning behind the epigrammatic phrase of the novel and film--"Who is John Galt?"--which will presumably be explicated in Part 3 when Galt extolls to the world:

In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours.

Whatever your political predilections and economic ideologies, this is surely a sentiment worth the price of admission. Go see Atlas Shrugged Part 1, then read the book and answer for yourself the question, Who is John Galt?


Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, and the author of The Mind of the Market. His next book is The Believing Brain. Contact: mshermer@skeptic.com

 
 
 

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