The roughly 90-minute Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, scheduled for release in selected cities on April 15, is neither a work of art nor a travesty. It is as good or bad a movie as one has reason to expect.
The movie, based on the first third of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece about the mind on strike, Atlas Shrugged, is fast, flip, and claustrophobic. In a complex story rich with cinematic potential about those who produce incalculable value in oil, metal, and railroads, dramatizing drilling, sparks, and friction ought to come easily. Here, in an arc about the creation of the John Galt Line, a stunning achievement in the face of government control which fuses energy, material, and transportation, the action is muted, diminished, and downsized. There’s a distinct lack of suspense.
There’s also a lack of sexual tension, which is crucial to the relationship between handsome steel industrialist Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler in the best performance) and his attractive railroad customer, businesswoman Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling in an uneven portrayal), who dares to order his breakthrough Rearden Metal for the new line she’s planning to build. The first third of the novel belongs to them; here, it’s a slice of business life. Thanks to Ayn Rand’s ingenious integration of plot and theme, it’s an interesting slice but, even with an effective recreation of Dagny’s claim on a bracelet, it’s been drained of sexual excitement. Amazingly, because this is integral and hard to miss, there’s no pervasive sense of loneliness, either, as Dagny Taggart takes on her monumental task. Some of the most moving scenes in the novel involve Dagny’s Herculean struggle to create something new and exciting in spite of everything dragging her down; her solitary moments in a back alley office, watched by a shadowy figure, are nowhere to be seen. What she tries to do is her answer to the sense of impending doom and her bond with Rearden is part of her reward. Neither her loneliness nor her presumed liberation are properly pictured here.
In one scene, Dagny feels the world closing in and reaches out to Rearden, looking for an answer. It’s one of the film’s best scenes, conveying the depth of her struggle against injustice and some unseen, unidentified evil, and there are other good scenes, too. The world’s creators mysteriously disappear in this broadly futuristic version of 2016, in which aviation has been downed, decent people are left begging for government handouts, and society is falling apart with only a few titans left to produce while corrupt bureaucrats and businessmen rise to power. Among them are Dagny’s brother (Michael Marsden), Hank’s wife (Rebecca Wisocky, nailing the part), and others who take some perverse pleasure in tearing apart what’s good. Sounding like the latest Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama directive, or the latest anti-capitalist diatribe or sermon from the college-bred liberal or the Bible-thumping conservative, they give the movie its sense of realism and relevance to today’s world and Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is focused in a certain sense on them. Ayn Rand’s ability to account for philosophy and envision the future is nothing short of astonishing and the picture eerily taps her startling forecast of America’s demise. Other fine moments depict when Taggart Transcontinental meets Rearden Metal, with the sun-kissed train curving through the meadows and mountains, and Dagny’s and Hank’s discovery of what’s left to rot in an abandoned factory in Wisconsin.
The mystery of the movie is why the mind is going on strike (if and when it is), and what lies at the root of what destroys, and moves, the world. And, in depicting a novel which brilliantly deconstructs and dramatizes altruism, the idea that one has a moral obligation to help others, Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 reduces her radical rejection of this idea to a line about “stupid altruistic urges” which doesn’t come close to Ayn Rand’s philosophy, let alone express her bold, exalted alternative: the virtue of selfishness.
So, the first movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is lacking; the script appears to have many fingerprints and some serious problems, the production apparently faced enormous challenges of rights, budget, and schedule and libertarians appear to have held more sway over the movie than Objectivists, leaving the world’s foremost authority on Ayn Rand’s ideas and work, Leonard Peikoff, out of the loop. But A is A and the fact that this movie was made, is, in today’s tragically disintegrating culture, an achievement. Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 ultimately does not have reverence for the 1957 novel, but it’s as though it doesn’t know how, or why, and it tries. If we lived in a society in which Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was understood, accepted, and applied to everyday lives, we wouldn’t be stuck in the sludge that surrounds us, and a mangled movie adaptation would not feel like an accomplishment. But we are and it does, and that’s that, so see the independent, low-budget film version known as Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 for what it is, and know that you are catching a mere glimpse of something deeper, more mysterious and meaningful, which portrays man at his best. See the movie, but only if you read the book.