The official release of the movie Atlas Shrugged Part One, based on Ayn Rand’s controversial 1957 novel, is not until April 15. It then begins a limited theatrical rollout in 11 American cities (which the producers hope will grow from there).
It has already been previewed to selected audiences in Los Angeles, D.C., and New York. I saw it in Los Angeles, on the Sony Pictures lot, in a screening regretfully marred by technical problems (with a projector that put thin blue vertical lines throughout the film image).
Still, the film’s qualities—both good and bad—came through. Anyone with a passionate interest in Ayn Rand and her opus will want to see, and will surely appreciate on many levels, this film version of a third of the novel.
Early word is encouraging for the film’s producers, John Aglialoro (CEO of the Cybex exercise equipment company and sole financier of this independently-produced film) and Harmon Kaslow. The world of Objectivist fans, those with a passionate attachment to their own vision of the book, seem likely unsatisfiable by anything that doesn’t spring directly from their imaginations to the theater of their minds.
But the early reactions from Randians has been positive, with adulation from Rand’s closest friends and disciples during the years she wrote Atlas, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, who were both blown away, and love from the Atlas Society’s philosophical linchpin David Kelley (who advised Aglialoro in every step of the process, to ensure the resulting script passed Objectivist muster). By the same token, some people who don’t care for Rand have also hated the film.
When I interviewed him for a forthcoming May feature story in Reason, producer Kaslow told me that they knew expectations were low for the movie because of its relatively small budget and rushed production schedule (reported frequently as $5 million, though the shoot ended up costing $10 million). Indeed, some reviewers based their admiration for the finished product somewhat on their hideous fears about it based on early reports.
The end result is definitely better than merely “not a disaster.” Atlas Shrugged the novel is divided into three parts, all named for different statements of Rand’s beloved Aristotelian “law of identity.” (A is A.) Part one is “non-contradiction.” So, is Atlas Shrugged Part One (the movie) equal to Atlas Shrugged (the novel, Part One)?
To give a mealy-mouthed answer, one that would cause Rand to condemn me as a mystical whim worshipper: It is and it isn’t. This movie has some of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which had its own Objectivist angle). That is, it struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel, with as much faithfulness to the source as the time limits of a commercial film allow. But that doesn’t necessarily add up to a well-conceived movie that stands on its own. Despite its virtues as a filmed adaptation of the novel, the movie qua movie doesn’t have enough to offer those not familiar with the source material, even if they aren’t inclined to hate Rand for her message.
Atlas is a densely thought out and constructed work that takes its characters on a full and exhilarating arc, through a plot and theme and mystery with a dynamite resolution. This movie only takes you a third of the way, and I can’t imagine anyone not dimly aware of the book's premise feeling anything but empty or puzzled at the movie’s ending (which is precisely the ending of Part One of the novel).
I am not trained to judge cinematography, but from a basic perspective this looked like a real professional film, with everything from the offices to the train rides to the parties looking how they needed to look—better than I expected from my three days on the set during the shooting, thanks to the magic of post-production and sharp editing.
As far as acting goes, I was not as impressed as others have been with Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart, the heroic railroad executive fighting to keep her company alive and the bloodlines of American oil pumping (and to make a buck, like a good Objectivist). She had moments where she conveyed the lithe, restrained, passionate steel of Dagny, but didn’t do so every moment. Some of her line readings fell flat, some of her expressions were too blank or sometimes too light and sunny. In what might count as a backhanded insult, she sometimes seemed too much like a normal human being for a Randian romantic heroine.
Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden, inventor of the wonder amalgam Rearden Metal, held down by his needy and contemptuous family and a government prepared to crush any industrial success, was more consistently solid. He manages, in a few seconds of screen time, to communicate something of the unspoken and complicated joy in his own creation that Rand took pages to explain.
Bowler especially shines in his interactions with his ne’er do well family and friends, and complicatedly hateful wife Lillian (Rebecca Wisocky), who I found the most perfectly acted role. (Bowler coped less well with the very slow-burn passion and eventual affair with Dagny.)
Smaller roles like former business genius turned dissolute playboy Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) (all of whose backstory flashbacks from the novel were cut), Rearden frenemy Paul Larkin (Patrick Fischler), and striking philosopher Hugh Akston (Michael O’Keefe), shone as well in a way that felt very much right from the novel.
Matthew Marsden has a great, but more distinct, take on Dagny’s brother James Taggart. He reinvented a character that, in the novel, feels a harried pathetic wreck into something of a douchebag smoothie (Marsden plays younger and more handsome than I expect most imagined James to be), making it more clear and believable that he would be a successful empty shell in a world run by pull, not achievement.