Movie Review: Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged

Surprisingly, there’s a lot I don’t like about the new Ayn Rand documentary, which I watched with a sold-out audience, including friends who worked on the 84-minute film, at a special screening at the ArcLight Hollywood last night. Because I know many of those who appear in or worked on it, I wanted to like every second of Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged and there is much to like in this movie, which I enjoyed as an experience of seeing Ayn Rand on the big screen again. By the time we see what relevance Rand’s epic novel has to today’s dark times, there are many good points, read directly from her 1957 Random House bestseller and contrasted with well-chosen works of art depicting opposing ideas. But the good points get bogged down in an overbearing movie.

With a booming male narrative, breakneck pace and incessant score, the independent documentary is better suited to the intimacy and immediacy of television. Writer and director Chris Mortensen achieves amazing results given the ground he has to cover in this short time frame. There’s just too much material crammed into the movie, which covers the truly prophetic Atlas Shrugged, set in what novelist and philosopher Rand called the day after tomorrow and dramatizing America collapsing under a corrupt establishment of government regulators and their favored businessmen who prey on individual achievement. Nothing wrong with being ambitious, but the unfortunately named Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged, which at its worst plays like a bombastic infomercial, delves into the book’s history at the expense of explaining key connections to today’s events.

The film relies too heavily upon two discredited Rand biographers, Jennifer Burns and Anne Heller, both of whom wrote deeply flawed accounts of Rand’s life in 2009, though they don’t repeat their worst errors or transgressions here. Presumably, they’re included for balance, the lack of which was a criticism of Michael Paxton‘s excellent Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, but this effort is best when it sticks to people who know and grasp Rand’s life, art and ideas, such as former Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) director Mike Berliner (editor of Rand’s Russian Writings on Hollywood and Letters of Ayn Rand) and current ARI President Yaron Brook. What most Atlas Shrugged readers know, that reading Ayn Rand makes you feel awake and alive and achieves a sense of weightlessness, is left to Burns for observation. But neither Burns nor Heller has much credibility on the subject.

A steady stream of scholars and students and businessmen capably discuss Rand’s ideas and the students’ insights are most effective in demonstrating the relevance of Atlas Shrugged. The most prophetic points are in abundant evidence and the discussion of the tunnel scene is particularly clear and compelling. However, Objectivists will want to know where is English literature professor Shoshana Milgram, who has lectured extensively on Rand and her greatest literary influence, Victor Hugo, or philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, who has edited several volumes on Rand’s courses and writings, or Rand’s heir, Leonard Peikoff? Each of them has produced outstanding material about Atlas Shrugged. General fans of the book may simply wonder at the absence of literary scholars in a film about the power of a novel.

As propaganda for an exceptional book that runs over a thousand pages, contains larger-than-life themes that challenge the dominant ideas of our times and tells the unforgettable story of the mind on strike, Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged partially succeeds. Among the assets are images of Ayn Rand in rare footage, including the author at a press conference with the film’s comic relief, a colorful movie producer named Al Ruddy (The Godfather), who pitched a movie version of Atlas Shrugged to her until she pitched it back (and did he drop the ball). Other footage includes scenes from the first cinematic adaptation of Rand’s novel, last year’s unsuccessful Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, and a rarely seen clip from President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech, in which Ike essentially warned about encroaching total government control of industry. So there is plenty of good, insightful material here, and Mortensen’s judgment can be impeccable, but there is too much of it, it is too imposing, and, as usual, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which has remained in print, sold over a million copies and should be read and studied by every rational man and woman, deserves better.

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