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Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged Part 2

Underwhelmed by last year’s unsuccessful Atlas Shrugged Part 1, I attended the premiere of the independent sequel Atlas Shrugged Part 2, scheduled to open on October 12 in 900 theaters according to its backer, with low expectations. The upshot: it is both better than the first film and inferior in quality to what Ayn Rand’s epic novel deserves.

Still lacking understanding of Atlas Shrugged – which is a work of great literature ingeniously seeded with a philosophy for living – the filmmakers overstate, overact and generally overdo aspects of the novel and they minimize or omit key developments. For example, Rand’s brilliant tunnel scene, in which heroine Dagny Taggart’s transcontinental train is heading toward disaster due to incompetence caused by government control of the economy, is depicted with all elements in place except the most crucial: passengers on the train that are indicative of the population’s consent to slavery. Instead, passengers are condensed into a composite character – Kip Chalmers – leaving out that, on the story’s terms, there is a sense in which everyone on the train deserves what’s to come. In the novel, the scene is a gripping, horrifying moment of truth for people who have ignored, evaded or aided the rise of tyranny. In Atlas Shrugged Part 2, it’s a plot point to punish a smarmy politician and a transition to Dagny’s character arc.

In fact, the independent filmmakers, who are not Objectivists, not that they’d have to be to do justice to the book, make a point to portray the public as kind and supportive of the story’s heroes, the opposite of what Rand intended and wrote. Her heroes are individualists who happily but wearily carry on under enormous burdens; from brakemen to titans, they are lonely and alienated from a nation that’s lost its way and turned them out. But, here, when industrialist Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe) stands before the Unification Board, having violated the government’s new economic dictate the Fair Share Law, an assembled audience cheers for him. So it makes you wonder how the country ended up in the grip of looters. Depicting merely the politics, but not Rand’s morality, egoism, the movie doesn’t dramatize how society – falling apart with the cost to fill up the gas tank over $800 – is reduced to a vast wasteland. In other scenes, public reaction to the dictates is divided between Tea Party type opposition and Occupy-type anti-capitalism. The result is confusion with regard to what world Dagny inhabits.

The sequel continues the plot that the great minds are disappearing due to state-sponsored coercion, that Dagny and her lover Rearden – both more sexless here than in the first movie – take on the mooching and looting government and that Dagny, played with a more serious and plausible sense of purpose this time by Samantha Mathis, hires someone to solve the mystery of a potentially revolutionary motor. Facing the reality of total dictatorship, the men and women of ability – Dagny and Rearden, Eddie (Richard T. Jones), a coal producer (Arye Gross), Dagny’s machinery detective (Diedrich Bader) and, possibly, her childhood friend Francisco (Esai Morales) – race against time to keep the West in action before the bureaucrats and parasites, such as Mrs. Rearden (Kim Rhodes) and James Taggart (Patrick Fabian), destroy what’s left of what they know and love. The story is framed within an impossible aviation race and it achieves an exciting conclusion touched by science fiction.

Objectivists and those who have read and like Ayn Rand may find value in seeing certain beloved scenes on screen at last but Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is absent Rand’s mastery of thought, language and theme. The novel’s political plot points serve the story of a lifetime – a woman who runs a railroad longs to worship a man worthy of her admiration and wants to be happy here on earth – in a breathtaking tale that’s larger than life and, here, as in the first picture, it’s the other way around. Do not expect this movie, which is more deliberate, more purposeful and more compelling, to honor the grand literary foretelling of our dark and disturbing times which is Atlas Shrugged. Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is satisfying as political drama only if you know why capitalism is moral and only to the extent that you do. It’s the little things – Rearden’s razor-minded secretary Miss Ives reduced to office eye candy, Cherryl Brooks without a proper introduction, Dagny in hideous earrings – that keep you from mistaking a cable TV-ready warning about what’s wrong with the world for an epic tale of the men who move the world and what it takes to be one of them. Atlas Shrugged Part 2 may mean well – and in this rotting civilization, that is something – but Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged means, and still deserves, much more.

Book Review: A Painted House by John Grisham

[March 25, 2001] John Grisham’s latest novel, a nostalgic coming of age tale, is an inviting story about rural life in Arkansas. Like his legal thrillers, A Painted House is filled with interesting characters in a particularly Southern setting ensnared by misdeeds that cry out for justice, though Grisham’s peculiar sense of justice is often unsatisfying.

As seven-year-old Lucas Chandler introduces life on his family’s cotton farm in 1952, it’s clear that the simple life of biscuits, chores and the cotton gin will give way to worldly disruption. The drama unfolds at a slow, leisurely pace with the boy, known as Luke, as the story’s narrator.

Luke, who lives with his mother, father and grandparents in an unpainted house, explains that this year’s promising cotton crop – in perpetual danger from the rains – must rely on the hard work of hired hands. In Black Oak, Arkansas, that means an unlikely alliance of Chandlers, Mexicans and those folks who descend from the Ozark Mountains called the Hill People.

The Mexicans, who are dirty, poor and hardworking, present no immediate threat to Luke, who yearns to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. But the Spruills from the Ozarks get off to an ominous start when they set up camp on the Chandlers’ front lawn, which serves as Luke’s private playground.

That first night, after his mother and grandmother shell peas and butter beans, as the family frets over the prospect of a good crop, Luke “sat on the steps, holding my Rawlings glove, squeezing my baseball inside it, watching the shadows of the Spruills in the distance and wondering how anyone could be so thoughtless as to build a fire on home plate.”

Luke soon falls for shapely 17-year-old Tally Spruill, who makes eyes at one of the Mexicans, who clashes with her brother, Hank, a brute who knows he’s brutal. There are many long, hot days of cotton-picking, a carnival, a rising river and, as the story reaches its climax, blood is spilled, fortunes are lost, a baby is born, and Luke’s keeping more secrets than the town busybody. The plot moves slowly but steadily.

A Painted House is not a legal thriller, as Grisham reminds his fans in an introductory note. The popular author applies his sense of small town law and order to create a wistful tale of youth and treachery amidst life on a farm in the Fifties.

For some readers, those days gone by are best forgotten. Luke’s grandfather Pappy is prone to such homespun wisdom as the proclamation that “women do stupid things” and the Chandlers’ notion of loyalty to family at all costs strikes the reader as more cruel than charming. It is also implausible that Luke would – or should – bear such heavy burdens. But it’s unlikely that fans will be disappointed; John Grisham is a skillful writer and he has written an evocative, if undemanding, story of the South.

Originally published as the lead fiction review in the March 25, 2001, edition of the Dallas Morning News and other newspapers upon publication.

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Books: Pakistan on the Brink

Shortly after 9/11, author Owen Bennett Jones observed in the introduction to his book, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press, 2002): “Ever since its creation [by the United Nations in 1947], Pakistan’s political development has been turbulent and chaotic. The country has been under military rule for nearly half its existence. No elected government has ever completed its term in office. It has had three wars with India and has lost around half of its territory. Its economy has never flourished. Nearly half its vast population is illiterate and 20 percent is undernourished. The country’s largest city, Karachi, has witnessed thousands of politically motivated murders. Religious extremists have been given free reign.”

Today, ten years after he wrote that, the leading journalist on Pakistan argues that matters have only gotten worse – and that President Obama, with whom he has met on the issue of Pakistan, is to blame.

Laying out America’s options with Pakistan and Afghanistan in the post-Bin Laden years in Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan ($26.95, Viking, March 19, 2012), Ahmed Rashid reports that Pakistan’s society is near collapse, hardship is widespread and the Islamic dictatorship is, in his words, immeasurably corrupt. “In the past twenty years, it has not developed a single new industry or cultivated a major new crop, even though it is an agricultural country.” U.S.-Pakistan relations, he argues, are a house of cards. With nuclear weapons – Pakistan is bordered by India, Iran, Afghanistan, the Arabian Sea and Communist China – its fall could trigger a catastrophe.

Rashid, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who has been covering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and central Asia for more than 20 years, is a leftist who previously wrote Taliban. He was invited by then-President-elect Obama to meet and discuss the region, so his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy as lacking clarity and being full of contradictions is especially interesting. Citing the President’s praise for Pakistan for cooperating on killing Osama bin Laden despite the fact that Pakistan had not cooperated, he all but admits that Obama is dishonest. As for Obama’s supposed triumph in picking off the Moslem terrorist responsible for killing thousands of Americans, his description of the aftermath ought to put that kill in its disgustingly proper and puny context. After Bin Laden’s corpse was taken to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, he notes, “his body was washed according to Islamic custom, placed in a white sheet, and weighted. His funeral prayers were read, and in the early hours of Monday morning, he was slipped into the sea from the lower deck.” He adds that Obama declared in an address to the nation that “justice had been done.”

What Rashid does not say is that, by honoring the mass murderer, justice had been undone.

There are numerous errors and apologies for Islamism throughout the otherwise informative book but Rashid, considered a leading authority on the Taliban and author of Descent into Chaos, is clearly frustrated by the once-adored Obama. He is also right to blame Bush and previous administrations for creating the radical Islamicization of Pakistan in Pakistan on the Brink, which reveals that Bush’s last ambassador to the volatile nation told Rashid in 2007 that he had never received an order from Washington to raise the issue of harboring the Taliban with his hosts. Rashid foresaw that the Iraq war would be reframed by intervention in Afghanistan and that Pakistan would emerge as the leading player through which American interests and actions would have to be directed. Now, with nuclear-armed Pakistan propelled by U.S. taxpayer dollars – over $20 billion between 2001 and 2010 – teetering on collapse and Islamist takeover and aiding the weaponization of the West’s Communist and Islamist adversaries, the primitive state made by the United Nations is decidedly on the brink of setting off a worldwide war.

In the words of William F. Butler in 1889, a prelude to Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan: “The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.” At least Ahmed Rashid, who has traveled, reported, written and spoken about what he has witnessed in Pakistan and the region’s wars for 30 years, lays blame squarely at the feet of the not-so-almighty Obama, about whom, it is worth noting, he fondly remembers on the basis of the President’s blood and proximity to Islam and multiculturalism: “He was black with a white mother and an African Muslim father; had lived in Indonesia; had traveled to Pakistan, India, and Kenya; and had Muslim relatives – a unique and engaging background.”

In the end, the author merely pleads for “democracy”, tags “bad government” and what he calls a “poor distribution of resources” and proposes what he calls changing the narrative. But his chapter title’s ominous alternative – preparing for the worst – is a potent reminder that proper actions based on rational ideals, not mixed signals from a liar with an exotic background, offer the only hope for change in this wretched and combustible part of the world.

New Ayn Rand Exhibit at Chapman University

Attending a reception earlier this month to formally open an exhibit at Chapman University, “Celebrating the Drama and Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, I had the pleasure of being given an extensive and informative tour by Ayn Rand Archives curator Jeff Britting and was surprised to find new and interesting material about works with which I’m extremely familiar. Among the items in the manuscript and photograph exhibit are first-edition copies of Rand’s 75th anniversary edition of We the Living, as well as some manuscript pages and photographs. We the Living, Rand’s first novel, is an excellent and haunting and relevant work of literature (read my 2009 take on We the Living here and my movie review here). Tucked inside an Orange County, California, library, “Celebrating the Drama and Philosophy of Ayn Rand” displays newspaper coverage, including book reviews, book cover designs, artwork, correspondence – with H.L. Mencken, for example – and more. The exhibit, which runs through June 29, also contains material about the publishing of Rand’s insightful collection of excerpted fiction writings and non-fiction essay For the New Intellectual. As philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whose Essays on We the Living was recently released in its second edition with newly added essays, told me at the end of this interview, We the Living is the closest we have to seeing the 20th century’s greatest writer in her youth.

Movie Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Director Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat, An Unfinished Life) returns with another subtle depiction of one’s pursuit of happiness in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Best seen as the story of Fred, a burned out government fishing expert called upon to guide the title’s impossible goal, this movie marks a turning point in Mr. Hallstrom’s brilliant career.

Set in London and the English countryside, with a climactic trip to the title country, Mr. Hallstrom manages to indulge us in a place, as he did with the frigid North in The Shipping News, colorful New England in The Cider House Rules, Venetian Italy in Casanova and the American West in An Unfinished Life. And he thankfully returns to form following a dreary thematic departure with Dear John. Here, the Swedish native, my favorite living director and also a friend, infuses a spiritual yet secular story – giving the term faith the broadest possible meaning – with irony, wit and benevolence. In this sense, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen succeeds in giving us a small slice of triumph and splendor.

As in his wry character study, The Hoax, Mr. Hallstrom, with Simon Beaufoy’s (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) script, gently floats the comedy. “Did you get my e-mail?” asks one government bureaucrat to another. “Yes,” comes the reply, followed without missing a beat by, “what did it say?” This sort of thing makes the movie more fun and, with serious subplots about a soldier missing in action in Afghanistan, a mid-life marriage in crisis and Islamic terrorists stalking the highly complicated project, it’s a welcome addition. The creators unfortunately do not take evil, religious terrorists or their motives as seriously as they should, which I personally find appalling. In one scene, someone practically apologizes for an act of terrorism.

But that is not the purpose of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which is perfectly scored by Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, Agora). Beginning with an elementary montage of water, fish and man casting a line, and centered upon neurotic, overly habituated Fred (Ewan MacGregor), the story proceeds to dramatize how to swim upstream, against time and tide, which most of us try or aim to do every other day. Highly skilled Fred does it gamely, falling for an equally talented project partner named Harriet (Emily Blunt), whose boyfriend has gone off to war in Afghanistan while she tries to put that thought out of her head and make an idealistic Yemeni sheik’s goal a reality. For his part, the sheik (Amr Waked) regards faith as the key to getting things done, by which the movie apparently means something like taking risks without full knowledge.

The impetus for the $50 million undertaking – involving a dam engineered by the Chinese, a special type of salmon, bedrock and local demand – is the troubled Anglo-Arab relations, which is where Kristin Scott Thomas’s cigarette-sucking government media bureaucrat comes in. Her no-nonsense pragmatist senses a net positive for her party-run media concern (the BBC) and tries to pull everything together to the Prime Minister’s advantage. Patience, tolerance and humility may be what the sheik has in mind but her state-sponsored media mistress is having none of that. In any case, she moves mountains to foster what at its root is an attempt by the sheik to bring water, life and Western civilization to tribalistic, even barbaric, Yemen, though no one in this movie would dare to put it that way.

Yet those tribal Yemenis might have something to say and do about salmon fishing in the Yemen, which might include suicide bombers. The movie wrongly implies that Islamic terrorists have a point, which amounts to sanction and, while that is a problem, it’s a familiar leftist refrain and not so virulent that a rational person can’t jettison that tripe from an otherwise enjoyable film. The characters, Fred and Harriet and the sheik, exist to build a dam and improve life in Yemen and the reality is that it’s practically impossible. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen asks us to believe in the damming, the fishing and the creation of manmade things in spite of impossible odds.

As the work progresses, married Fred falls for Harriet and struggles to find a non-conformist way out of his neurotic habits – pleading in a scene with Harriet to “forgive the grammatical inadequacies” of his sentence – as Harriet must choose whether to abide and the sheik, the first to express admiration for something Fred creates, strives to walk what he calls the fine line between glorifying that which God made and that which man made. With Harriet telling Fred what he longs to hear out loud – that he should be happy – and Fred showing Harriet what she yearns to see for real – that the good is possible – and everyone including the “odd heathen” working to realize salmon fishing in the Yemen, the picture’s blessed vision for harmonious happiness here on earth, what may have been an Arab sheik’s vanity project may become a place for good people to go against the tide and live in peace. That’s the idea, though Kristin Scott Thomas’s cynic isn’t betting on it, and it is beautifully and thoughtfully expressed.