Atlas Shrugged Part II: Election Edition

Ayn Rand's timeless classic is filmed as a Tea Party fable.


At the Los Angeles pre-release screening for Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike, one of its producers and lead financiers, John Aglialoro, lectured for more than 10 minutes before the film rolled. He was informing the invitation-only crowd—most of whom, by virtue of being there, were probably familiar with these ideas—of the philosophical and political themes driving the novel on which the film was based, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Atlas came out in 1957 and has been selling strongly ever since, with over 7 million units moved in America.

The film's tale of an overweening and desperate government stealing from and hobbling productive industrialists, and its release date in the heart of election season, mark it as political. But Aglialoro stressed that Rand's philosophy was not just about political liberty. Thus, it is not easily or uncomplicatedly embraced by either side of the standard American left-right divide.

Both the conventional left and right, Aglialoro said, embrace altruism (which Rand saw as a great moral evil) for different reasons. The right does so, he thinks, for religious reasons. The Objectivist filmmaker (and the successful businessman behind the Cybex exercise machine empire) clearly understands his movie's potential for ginning up anti-government (in the modern context, likely anti-Obama) emotions. Thus he reminds the right they ought not to drive atheists such as followers of Rand's Objectivism out of their political coalition. (Showing perhaps a lack of appreciation of the bold, bravura quality of Rand's personal style, Aglialoro admitted to Slate's David Weigel that he wishes Rand hadn't used the term "selfishness" to describe what she defended.)

The standard bastions of right-wing intellectual or political power have never loved Rand—and Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has run away from his reputation as a professed fan of hers. Her stance on the limits of government's rightful powers are too stringent, her hatred of the irrationality of religion too blazing. Still, Atlas II is tonally aimed at an obvious right-wing audience, the sort who thought Romney was right-on with his comment about the 47 percent of Americans who live off government and see themselves as victims. Romney didn't use the Randian terms "looters and moochers" for those who live off taxes but he might as well have. The film features Fox News' Sean Hannity in an as-himself cameo arguing Atlas's theme, as government tries to confiscate metal magnate Henry Rearden's amazing amalgam, "Rearden metal." The film, though its theme and events are taken directly from Rand's 1957 novel, unspools in October 2012 as if designed to appeal to one side in a modern American political debate.

Aglialoro announced at the screening, with what sounded like lingering bitterness from the nearly universal professional critical drubbing that Atlas Shrugged Part I received, that they would be doing no pre-release screenings for professional film reviewers. "Why give them the sword they would use to decapitate the movie?" he asked.

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He's probably right to fear the critics, though compared to Atlas I, this film has double the budget, will be premiering in more than double the theaters, and has a new cast and additions to the screenwriting team. It looks better and has a more interesting story to tell than Part I, and it tells it well. Part of that advantage is because of the events in Part II of the novel which the film tracks almost precisely; the story is in motion and there's more interesting action to dramatize.

Given the care with which Rand unraveled her tale, it's surprising the movie is understandable with zero explicit recapping of Part I; some smooth bits of dialog early set up the world in which railroad chieftain Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis) and metal master Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe) are about the last competent industrialists in a world choked by a government-caused sclerosis, with economic decisions made based on connections and excused by the fruitless pursuit of equality and fairness. People of ability—musicians, scientists, other industrialists—are mysteriously disappearing, to the immense frustration of Taggart and Rearden, who feel bound to keep doing the best they can no matter how much their government or culture disrespects them even while demanding more and more of them. 

To expect a traditional naturalistic film from Rand's heady, nightmarish fantasy of what the world run according to the principles of state-enforced equality would become is to disappoint yourself before the movie starts. Rand's characters are archetypes of ideas, and the more the actors try to make them seem like "real people" the less powerful the themes and actions feel. Un-Randian moments such as Rearden muttering an ironic "catchy" after he's told his metal will be renamed "miracle metal" after the government steals his formula, or Francisco D'Anconia (Esai Morales, in the movie's most consistently delightful performance) tossing out a too of-the-moment "how's that working out for you?" as he asks Rearden why he permits himself to be a milk cow for looters and moochers may get a slight chuckle from modern audiences, but will play phony to fans of the novel.

Beghe gives Rearden a gravelly imperturbability, like an industrial crime boss, that works pretty well when he defies a government kangaroo court with a brave declaration of his rights as a creator and his refusal to honor their attempts to rob him by pretending he's giving his sanction, but fails to get across that this man is tortured by his misunderstanding of what true morality means in a world where creators are abused and disrespected. Mathis, alas, despite the filmmakers' talking up of Taggart as one of the great strong iconic heroines of 20th century literature, is given little in the script to show the grit and heroism of the character. She mostly is required to sell not super competence or steely heroism but being peeved, annoyed, or surprised by the turns of events around her. Her big moments of action are grabbing a map and re-routing a train line in an emergency, and then crashing a plane.

The problem with filming Atlas, even with a final result that might be as long as six hours when it's all done, is that the power of the novel arises from the bludgeoning repetition of theme and character points that make some think it fails as a well-constructed work of fiction. Still, that thick accretion of detail, whether of the heroes' beliefs, the villains' evasions and fear, or the physical and intellectual decay of an entire culture, is key to the book's eerie, nightmarish hold.

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The film cannot do everything the novel can, and it must aggravate the filmmakers that Ayn Rand fans like me can't help but judge the movie's aesthetic impact against the novel's. The movie largely reduces Rand's message to the Tea Party friendly one of being against government economic management and stealing from the productive to be "fair" to others. Fortunately, there is one hat tip to Rand's deeper defense of reason and rationality (more important to her than being against altruism or statism) when Rearden snaps back to a smarty-pants young liberal that rigid principles are necessary to pour steel. It's a fun moment.

There's a later moment that's not fun at all, where Rand's message about the dire effects that arise from seemingly innocent or merely "philosophical" beliefs, which is bizarrely powerful in the novel, is blunted in the movie, even though the scene is the movie's dramatic climax. The film simply cannot manage to show you in one scene the damaging philosophies of all the passengers on a doomed train; an arrogant and supercilious politician bears all the weight. The train wreck then feels like just a train wreck, not the inevitable culmination of centuries of bad philosophy.

The movie has one quiet touch that tries to reach across the class divide between superman industrialists and doomed proletarians and their slimy, mealy-mouthed liberal supposed protectors. The person carving a plaintive gravestone for America upon the passage of a law giving the government total control over the economy is a Manson-looka-like bum, one we are meant to understand was likely a good-thinking working man before the economy was strangled. Rand walked a complicated line in Atlas about who we were supposed to hate: the restrictions on the Reardens and Taggarts did not harm only them, but harmed everyone who depends on the wealth thrown off and distributed by free-market capitalism. In the film, this idea is touched upon by about-to-defect coal magnate Ken Danagger to Dagny. But Rand also believed that those with wrong ideas (government should strive for equality, for example) deserved whatever came to them because of it.

The film adds a bit to the end of the novel's Part Two that, for those who have been paying attention and figured out the central plot gimmick, almost works as a "happy ending" of sorts that doesn't necessarily leave the viewer hungry in a cliffhanger sense for the next installment.

This film is a labor of love for its makers—not many films that lose money as Part I did get sequels at all—and probably for its core audience as well. Rand lovers will likely want to see the movie, and want to like it, and it offers them a fair amount to like. Atlas Shrugged Part II is professional and it does what it sets out to do, within the limits of its form. But it will likely not change any minds or lives the way Rand's source material can and does.

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