It’s a blessing, I suppose, that Ayn Rand, who loved the movies, and actually worked extensively in the industry, isn’t alive to see what’s been made of her most influential novel. The new, long-awaited film version of Atlas Shrugged is a mess, full of embalmed talk, enervated performances, impoverished effects, and cinematography that would barely pass muster in a TV show. Sitting through this picture is like watching early rehearsals of a stage play that’s clearly doomed.
The movie is especially disappointing because Rand’s 1957 book, while centrally concerned with ethical philosophy (and inevitably quite talky), has a juicy plot that, in more capable hands, might have made a sensational film. (That possibility, alas, may now be closed off.) As anyone reading this will probably know, the story concerns strong-willed Dagny Taggart, who’s fighting to save her family railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, from the inept leadership of her brother, James, a moral weakling, and from the metastasizing reach of government regulation. Dagny finds a kindred spirit in Henry Rearden, a principled industrialist who has formulated a new kind of steel that Dagny intends to use in upgrading Transcontinental’s decaying tracks. She and Rearden are opposed at every turn by collectivist politicians and corporate titans corrupted by their addiction to the government teat. Meanwhile, the nation’s most productive businessmen, demoralized by rampant political interference, are vanishing one by one from the public scene. And a mysterious figure named John Galt appears to have something to do with this.
The film was obviously a labor of love for producer John Aglialoro, a multimillionaire Randian who held movie rights to the book for 18 years, and made every effort to set it up as a professional production. (Angelina Jolie was famously attached at one point.) Then, last year, with his option running out, Aglialoro decided he had no choice but to make the movie himself. He quickly hired Brian Patrick O’Toole, a writer of low-budget horror films, to work with him on the script, and an actor, Paul Johannson (of TV’s One Tree Hill) to direct. He also managed to sign some seasoned professionals for the cast: Graham Beckel (Brokeback Mountain) in the role of oil magnate Ellis Wyatt; Edi Gathegi (from the Twilight movies) in the part of Dagny’s loyal lieutenant Eddie Willers; and two veterans of Coen brothers films, Michael Lerner and Jon Polito, to play political fixer Wesley Mouch and the collusive corporate sleaze Orren Boyle.
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Unfortunately, Aglialoro then cast a pair of TV actors in the key roles of Dagny and Rearden. Taylor Schilling (Mercy) is an appealing performer, but she’s not really equipped to project Dagny’s passionate determination; and Grant Bowler (True Blood), an actor of low-key warmth, is too unassertive to hold the screen as the uncompromising Rearden. It may be unfair to judge these two on their work here—they don’t seem to have been given much in the way of useful direction, and they’ve been set adrift in a succession of poorly blocked and shot scenes. Because of budget constraints, presumably, the whole movie seems underpopulated; and the one big party sequence is so low on energy that it resembles a casting call for which the auditioning actors have turned up already in costume. There’s quite a bit of narrative padding and a woeful lack of action. We see rather too much footage of sleek trains speeding through countryside (assisted at times by surprisingly crude computer generation), and there are lingering shots of hilly, verdant landscapes shoehorned into the proceedings to no purpose. (At one point there’s even a close-up of a flower.)
Anyone not familiar with Rand’s novel will likely be baffled by the goings-on here. Characters spend much time hunkered around tables and desks nattering about rail transport, copper-mining, and the oil business. A few of these people are stiffly virtuous (“I’m simply cultivating a society that values individual achievement”), but most are contemptible (“We must act to benefit society”…“a committee has decided”…“We rely on public funding.”) These latter creeps should set our blood boiling, but they’re so cartoonishly one-dimensional that any prospective interest soon slumps. We are initially intrigued by the recurring question, “Who is John Galt?” But since the movie covers only the first third of the novel (a crippling miscalculation), we never really find out, apart from noticing an anonymous figure lurking around the edges of the action, togged out in a trench coat and a rain-soaked fedora like a film-noir flatfoot who’s wandered into an epoch far away from his own.
Rand’s book is set in an unspecified future that bears a startling resemblance to our own here-and-now. There’s a stock-market collapse, much populist demagoguery and union thuggery, and chaos in the Middle East that has driven gas prices to $37 a gallon (which purportedly explains the resuscitation of railroads as the only affordable transport for passengers and freight). The book is set in an unspecified future; the movie relocates the story to the year 2016, but it might as easily have been next week. These sociopolitical similarities might have been more rousing if they had been punched home more boldly. The occasional bursts of TV news footage employed here don’t really do the job.
Although Rand’s novel is well over a thousand pages long, one
can’t help wondering if, with a radically compressed script, it
couldn’t have been turned into a tightly edited two-and-a-half-hour
film—into a real movie, in other words, not just a limply
illustrated literary classic. Now we may never know. But this
picture is too lusterless to stir much indignation. Instead, it
leaves us feeling, in Rand’s words, “the merciless zero of
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
Note: For additional Reason coverage of Atlas Shrugged Part 1, see Senior Editor Brian Doherty’s review “Atlas Shrugged: Is A (The Movie) Really A (The Novel),” which declared, “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.” After attending an advance screening, Editor in Chief Matt Welch proclaimed, "You cared about the story and the protagonists, the look and sound were mostly (and surprisingly) handsome, Dagny in particular and Hank were good, and there are some pretty awesome capitalism, bitches!-style moments."
Reason.tv has provided in-depth coverage as well, producing a series of videos focusing on both the film and on the life and legacy of Ayn Rand. For an exclusive behind-the-scenes report, don’t miss Reason.tv’s “On the Set of Atlas Shrugged: 53 Years in the Making.”