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Movie Review: Carol

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A new movie about two women in love depicts with effortlessness the veiled, secret desire of lesbians in the 1950s. Carol (The Weinstein Company, directed by Todd Haynes) is interestingly, obsessively nostalgic about its period and its dramatic purpose—to show a forbidden couple in conflict—though it is also nearly plotless.

This imbues Carol, based on an erotic novel by the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train, with a dreamlike quality that permits the female version of same-sex romanticism found in Ang Lee’s haunting Brokeback Mountain from ten years ago. In fact, Carol has a lot in common with that picture. Lead characters are left alone and apart for stretches, stressing the distance. They come together in rare, passionate silences amid winter landscapes. They look, long and grope for one another.

They are also both true to life, so in Carol the characters, unlike the unlucky, tortured and persecuted men of Brokeback Mountain, are more easily masked and concealed and the lesbians are able to hide their sexuality in plain sight. The ending wordlessly hits with impact. After Friday’s Islamic terrorist attack on Paris, Carol‘s timing is perfect. Every infidel and, more broadly, every joy-seeking individual, now must learn to brace or conceal his pursuit of happiness—dining out, attending a concert or sport—unless, by some miracle, our civilization chooses to defend itself from the siege of barbarism.

Carol provides an elegant lesson in the success of secrecy, beginning with an emblem of forbidden love’s long, unpredictable plight. The first sound is the rhythmic roll of a train, steady, punctuated and purposeful, and the first image is that of an interlacing pattern of design. This is the introductory sensory material to the story of these two unusual women, played by Cate Blanchett (Cinderella, Truth) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who become an interlocking part of each other’s lives as they go barreling toward some common outcome.

Whether they end up like Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise is up to others, because it’s the 1950s, until and unless they make the matter up to them. Mara’s gamine shopgirl Terese only looks like Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the style is similar but her substance is straighter, clearer and stronger. She knows what she likes and wants and is easygoing about paying the price of her ambition. She wears a uniform Christmas hat only after a stern spinster-type remands her to do so. She goes along with working in the doll department though she’d rather be working with train sets. Her boyishness is matter of fact.

Terese eyes Blanchett’s feline Carol one day over by the trains. She lets the glance across the space linger. She signals that she wants to play.

Carol’s been catting around enough to know when to pounce, so she stalks and makes her move. Terese is instantly drawn to the sensuality and, really in the most fundamental sense, she’s enchanted by Carol’s refusal to back down from getting what she wants. Terese is young and, with Mara’s doe-like eyes of innocence, she’s insatiable for a guide to getting what she wants in life. She has a boyfriend, she has a hobby—taking pictures—and she’s greedy. But Terese is also intelligent and she knows that she’s a work in progress. She knows that she does not know it all.

Enter the husky-voiced, lipsticked stranger who, when the two finally meet in semi-private, overenunciates her name with more drama than a Joan Crawford movie. All of this unfolds slowly, with bleak, hushed, moody colors, tones and details awash in Fifties sameness with the train as a gentle, clicking symbol that the furtive shadow dancing is coming to a climax. Their glances do the work of the homosexual flirtation toward sexual liberation. Their whispers do the work of what the words cannot say. Everything they suggest, mean and become to each other is in code.

Carol has a husband (Kyle Chandler) and a child and this complicates everything, too. The child is deeply loved by Carol, though the husband is not. That he knows this fact is the wispy plot’s central conflict. Sex stereotypes are reversed and the needy male— underrepresented in Hollywood movies—emerges as an ominous threat to Carol and her newfound union. Aiding and abetting Carol in the crime of lesbianism is her former lover, played by Sarah Paulson (Mud, 12 Years a Slave) in another knockout performance.

But Carol is not anti-male and, as she puts Terese in the Packard’s passenger seat and heads off on a frosty road trip, the wise, seasoned vamp must face and reconcile the consequences of making herself, a wife and mother, a forbidden object of desire for another woman. The secret gay union forges shortly after a stay in Chicago’s Drake Hotel, where Terese really starts to discover the world and the prospect of her place in it. Not surprisingly, reflecting today’s sexism against men, romantic same sex scenes are more revealing in Carol than those in Brokeback Mountain, allowing Terese and Carol fuller character development, which adds to the movie’s powerful conclusion.

You’ll probably hear a lot about this film’s perfect period detail—in record albums, dish patterns, make-up and costumes—and compliments are well deserved. But the nostalgia is not an end in itself; Carol‘s trains, designs and artifacts serve a subtle point in timelessness and director Haynes, with an adaptive screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, weaves it into the picture with intricacy and skill. The middle of the 20th century was an imprisoning time for the woman, straight or gay, as Carol demonstrates. But it also pegs a midpoint convergence of two types of women—the temptress using her feminine wiles and the working girl using her mind—and the emergence of courage and, really, fearlessness, required of the modern, liberated woman of the mind.

Add to that that these two happen to be gay and Carol pointedly if delicately dramatizes that gays have always been embedded among society. Given cultural mores, gay men were relegated to back rooms and dark corners and, to a large extent, they still are. Gay women have the play of the field. Witness the acceptance of DeGeneres, Foster and O’Donnell, a status that celebrity male homosexuals are rarely afforded without reduction. Women may couple up to dance and play at being lesbians at their discretion. Accordingly, and in sharp contrast to today’s near-total fetishization of the heterosexual woman as a macho archetype, Carol is a warm and evocative depiction of the discreet woman.

Its dreamy sense of timelessness underscores how changeable are the times in which we live. There’s an intriguing example of this in Carol, which places three American presidents in the picture in reverse chronological order: Dwight Eisenhower appears at first in a televised address about progress, hinting at the movie’s theme, then William McKinley makes an appearance in a room where the lovers first share an intimacy, and, finally, I think it’s Andrew Jackson who appears in a climactic scene in which one of the women chooses to break from society, at great cost to herself, in order to live an honest life.

The theme, newly relevant this week—I do not think this is the filmmakers’ intention—is that it is possible to pursue one’s happiness whether society is in regress or progress. In other words, accept the state of the world (in Carol’s case, certain conventions) and go after what makes you happy. Though there’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you want and there may be every reason to believe that the culture is very much against you, as Carol depicts with masterful detail, it is crucial to know that you must go after what you want—even in defiance of the entire world.

Movie Review: Steve Jobs

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Another contender for best movie in this year of fine movies is Universal’s version of Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs. As a dramatic portrait of the creator who radically changed the world, it is magnificent. At last, writer Aaron Sorkin’s (Moneyball, The West Wing, The Social Network) breathless dialogue style is filtered and tethered by director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire), or by Sorkin. The outcome is a poetic depiction of a true American fountainhead. (Read my thoughts on Steve Jobs and my thoughts on Apple).

With an electronic score to match the time frame, which runs from the mid-1980s to the final months of the 20th century, Steve Jobs moves in talking pictures, marking the creative life of a genius in three acts of grand halls filled with crowds, featuring singularly distinctive machines made possible by Apple, the Silicon Valley, California company Steve Jobs founded with Steve Wozniak—arguably the world’s greatest, richest company—and the people in Jobs’s life.

A brilliantly visionary producer talking with people about making products starts the movie. The opening scene displays his insistence upon perfection in a new product, the Mac, at Apple’s Flint Center introduction of the Macintosh personal computer following the revolutionary Super Bowl advertisement based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The film’s conflict pits Steve Jobs against the world. But it also purports to put Steve Jobs against the audience because it is apparent that the audience is supposed to detest, rather than try to understand, what Jobs says and does. In fact, modern society pushes the audience away from what Jobs wanted, sought and achieved: perfection in integrating form and function in each aspect of life through fostering man’s autonomy. Apple’s ethos is individualism.

Steve Jobs is the individualist.

However, Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs wants, gets and trades more, as Apple does, with a measured achievement in addition to perfection in one’s work—a meaningful, happy life as one’s proper purpose. The ethics of egoism is embedded here if you know how to look for it, though I don’t know if today’s audiences will expend the effort. The tale this simple and magical movie shows and tells, and it’s extremely verbal though not in that irritatingly smug Sorkin tone, is an elegantly rendered tale of a life lived large yet always in the moment. Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs is sharp and arrogant, not flip and smug, and he strives to be balanced and whole.

“Artists lead,” Jobs tells a colleague with whom he’s at odds, and one of the things I like about this movie is how skillfully it dramatizes that the greatest minds are usually in conflict with the whole world, “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

Jobs is not a martyr, as depicted here, and it’s worth noting that this is based on a book by the author chosen by Jobs after he read the writer’s biography of Albert Einstein. Jobs is not portrayed as tortured or monstrous. In dealings with people in his company and life—Apple CEO and mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, The Martian), confidante Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, Little Children), an ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston)—he is, like Walt Disney, driven, difficult and daring. Steve Jobs covers the essentials, in thinly drawn, clean and meaningful lines, winks, nods and links to the logo, the machines, the designs, and how Jobs lived; how he ate, listened, relaxed, celebrated, controlled and conducted—mostly, how he thought.

This is not a documentary of Jobs’s business history. There’s no Cube, eWorld or Pixar. Instead, it portrays life in certain, selective products and those moments which align with the launch of those products. So, the impending failure of NeXT at an opera house is placed in its proper context in the second act as lead-in to the iMac in the third and final act at Symphony Hall. Mac fans, Apple employees and evangelists and the press are never far from view, as is Lisa, his daughter, who represents the evidence of progression for a rebel who was adopted, defied laws and rules and dropped out of college. “It would be criminal not to enjoy this moment,” says a character who becomes a friend.

This is the theme of Steve Jobs.

His technology, accounted for and credited to proper sources, including the Apple II, exists merely to serve the moment, not the other way around. Think different, a screen with Apple’s motto says, in one of at least two crucial, dissolving transitions. Steve Jobs does, honoring truth even when it’s inappropriate, improper or hurtful. Among those affected include Wozniak (Seth Rogen, The Guilt Trip), who is as right as Jobs in a climactic encounter, Sculley and a longtime Apple principal (Michael Stuhlbarg) who demonstrates that those who most deserve to get close to the man of the mind are often driven the farthest away.

As Jobs, Fassbender (12 Years a Slave), who looks more like Sting from The Police than Steve Jobs, is as intense and engaging as ever. The actresses playing Lisa also shine and so do others in the cast, with Winslet getting the laugh lines. The audience is likely to be split, not between Mac faithful and those with contempt for Apple, but between those who revere both the perfect union of controlling one’s own life and work and the requisite for achieving it—absolute freedom—and those who seek to manage life and work or have it managed and controlled by others.

Steve Jobs is a passionate movie and not in a Hollywood way. The passion here comes from the art of thinking, the contemplation, the stretching, the using and the experimenting. Technology is not depicted as an end in itself to Steve Jobs—it is not his religion—it is a means of activating his best within and doing it here on earth. With inspiration from singer-songwriters, taking the audience and Jobs from imagination to full awareness of reality, the two-hour Steve Jobs—a rare Hollywood hymn to one Ayn Rand called the most persecuted minority, the individual, specifically the individual who creates to make money—zips by like childhood.

Like the life of Steve Jobs, it ends too soon and with genuine wonder at the world. (Go here to buy the DVD and here to buy the Blu-Ray edition).


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Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is an innocuous and plain potboiler. Promoted as a psychological thriller, it’s better described as light feminist fiction. It zips along like a good train ride.

Told in revolving voices by three women—conservative Anna, troubled Megan and the main character, alcoholic Rachel—the London-based novel pairs these salty ladies with different men at varying places and times, all of which ultimately converge.

Rachel moves the plot. Her messy affairs and wince-inducing choices hinge on enticing details. The poor woman (she’s a grown woman, not a girl) is obviously spiraling into despair while flailing to somehow stop herself, which makes her Rear Window-like observations and reckless exploits strangely absorbing. Don’t mind the underpinnings too closely, because the whole conflict and resolution are more than a tad flat; read for psychological musings but keep reading for humor amid the murderous mystery.

It’s not that the psychology is bad. Some of the best ideas for treatment are delivered by a delicately featured man who may be an Islamic psychologist who is also a suspect in whatever crime this woozy, nosy eyewitness may have seen from the train or its nearby underpassages. But women in The Girl on the Train are shallow by any stretch, which makes it easier for Hawkins to portray them as victims. That the women also victimize, imprison and impair themselves is a key theme, with clever diversions and sidetracks such as the doting kindness of Cathy the landlord, and the ladies’ self-talk in introspective log entries keeps thought and action balanced, enveloping and involving.

Each tale involves the woman, her deepest desire for a man, and, centrally, her burgeoning awareness of herself as a whole woman, including the ability to bear a child. This is a particular aspect which grants The Girl on the Train momentum toward a heart-pounding climax. As Rachel strains to clear her blurry vision and achieve clarity while serving as an amateur, unemployed sleuth (with a thing for gin and tonics), her ex-husband Tom, a muscular Mr. Right and a red-haired stranger on—or is it off?—the train come into focus with sudden and blaring urgency. Beware of men, Hawkins warns the reader, including the cop that never shows up, and be kinder to women. The Girl on the Train does not get deeper than that and it’s not hard to guess what happens. But this bestselling book about a humorously self-inflicted journey into darkness moves at a steady, sobering pace.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The World According to Garp (1982)

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George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s breakthrough 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, is better than its reputation. The Warner Bros. picture was a critical and commercial failure. Above all, this serious-themed movie—out this month on Blu-Ray—is seeded with ideas.

That the ideas involve sex, collectivism and death make The World According to Garp a culturally significant motion picture. With Hill (Hawaii, The Sting, The Little Drummer Girl) directing and a taut script by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away), the novel’s puritanical feminist mother to Garp (Robin Williams in his first major movie), portrayed by Glenn Close with perfection, sets the tone. The plain, Yankee frankness of seriously horrifying ideals mixed with perfectly reasonable ideals plays across Garp’s lifetime.

Garp’s mother is a rapist who compares sex with disease and, when her own son expresses the desire to gain new knowledge by asking questions, she cuts him down with a snap: “I’m tired of your questions.” She is both mother and monster. Garp’s mother violates his privacy, rescues him from danger and buys him sex from a prostitute and thus enmeshes Garp in the crazy making of her life. This is Irving’s absurdism but it is also the stuff of life. From a former top athlete who becomes a transsexual (John Lithgow) to Garp’s starch grandparents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) and a reckless driver (Matthew Cowles), colorful characters depict various contradictions of our time.

Accordingly, the result is, and this fits the movie’s theme, an adventurous life. Garp’s lonely, sorrowful struggle to find happiness is strangely larger than and true to life. Garp, named after a crippled tailgunner his nurse mother raped in the hospital, wrestles the vicious dog that bit him as a boy during fellatio in order to recover his first manuscript. He becomes, of course, a writer and a wrestler. The act of fellatio reprises in his life with devastating impact, too. The World According to Garp is relentless in such audacious details and rich in symbolism. Williams is adept in every scene, playing the suppressed energy of an emasculated New England male caught in the 20th century’s rapid descent into feminist dogma and ripped apart by sexual liberation.

The story is brilliantly anti-sexual in a fundamental sense, though it is captured in a way which, thanks to Robin Williams and his co-star Mary Beth Hurt as his college professor wife Helen, is compelling. Their troubled marriage thoughtfully comes undone amid conflicting career goals and frustrations, as each wrestles with anxiety over kids, fear of death and balancing love, work and life. Living with the insecure writer, or the academic constantly tempted by youth, and making “the kids” a rationalization for denial, are all dramatized with skill and humor. From the hilarious definition of “gradual school” to an uncomfortable scene between the babysitter and Garp, in which he salivates at her being 18 while she salivates at his being 30, Garp is honest, clear and insightful.

It makes the audience think.

But Garp is best in its anti-sex theme showing the mass contradiction of feminism, a collectivist offshoot defining one’s identity as based on one’s sex, an idea which was widely accepted and only spread after the bestselling novel was adapted. The women’s-only coastal compound where Garp’s evangelistic mother nurses her adherents back to health, from the tough-but-kind, and notably unsatisfied, transsexual to the man-hating women who mutilate themselves as martyrs for the feminist faith, is both prison and sanctuary. The place is peaceful, decent and it’s where Garp goes to heal, thanks to his mother in a final act of enlightenment.

Garp’s Kennedy-like compound is a transient place of irrationalism, where the wicked and the wounded alike are housed, granting refuge to the absurd and tolerance to society’s most vulnerable victims. The World According to Garp co-habits the 20th century’s worst ideas, including pragmatism, fatalism and self-sacrifice, and thus reflects the United States of America. That the practitioners are women seeking to rule men is especially astute.

This is not to say that Garp is explicitly anti-feminist, as Irving and Tesich merely send feminists up for the sake of humor. In one transition, Roberta Muldoon is maiden to Garp’s boys during child’s play. In the next scene, Helen capitulates to playing maiden in need of rescue for real to one of her students. Sexual stereotypes self-perpetuate; Garp’s women, even his stubborn mother, have a point.

Faith breeds force, as Ayn Rand once wrote, and brute force takes its toll, though Irving probably does not intend this as the meaning of Garp. The subtext is there, however, instilled in dark, strange and almost surrealistic plot points, which are possibly too serious and tragic for most, except the most damaged. It calls out life’s absurdities, such as the iconic plane striking the house, and beckons the weird to face the strange, as David Bowie sings in “Changes”, and embrace the byproduct of mixed ideas: the unusual, even the painful, hard and terrible.

In the character Pooh Percy, the archetypical arch-feminist, who is also a sociopath, one sees the full arc of Garp‘s clearly dramatized sub-theme that, while life should be lived as an adventure, which in this context means embracing uniqueness including any contradictions, ultimately man is doomed by the irrational. Whether this is true (I think it’s false), one can take it, even on Garp‘s terms, to mean that man’s only doomed to self-terminate to the extent he sanctions the irrational. Pooh Percy is a feminist in glasses and pigtails taken to the logical application of her ideals. A line early in the movie indicates that Pooh’s mother implants the child with hatred of her own sex and life and one wonders what else might have happened to this child, especially since her father is a malignant if minor character. Pooh is like an Islamic fundamentalist trained from scratch to be like a laser-guided missile to destroy sex, love and life. To Pooh, values are poison; she is like an automatonic assassin programmed for death. Watch Pooh for a lesson in what happens when decent people refuse to think, judge and speak up about the judged.

Garp is not, contrary to some assertions, flat, terrible and deadly. Certainly, Garp is mixed. The theme is not positive. Yet intelligent ideas about writing permeates the movie. From the gloves in a story Garp writes and the role of the piano in his self-recovery to the sound of a typewriter’s keys at Christmastime, this is an involving depiction of the writer’s life in stark, dramatic detail. It is possible to live a meaningful life in The World According to Garp, with the richest rewards coming in the most surprising places, times and gestures. Garp’s greatest literary achievement finally comes as a result of Garp’s greatest risk. His payoff comes in a most unwelcome context with a character played by Amanda Plummer. It’s a poignant moment which captures Irving’s brand of misfit individualism. Taking the tragic as a metaphysical primary, Garp proposes that one’s life soars only before the downfall.

This makes The World According to Garp a timely, thoughtful movie not without merit which is thoroughly modern, and prophetic, in its malevolence.

Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

Click to Buy Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Blu-Ray edition