Ayn Rand

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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  1. Sounds like there’s not much appeal for this film outside of a very niche audience of hardcore objectivists.

    Not all that surprising, really.

  2. Whatever – still haven’t been able to make it through the book. Not gonna see the movie. Thanks, Cliff’s Notes?!

    1. I’d pick it up and thumb forward to the next good stopping point, and then put it down. But a year later I finally managed to finish it!

      1. Perhaps I need to try your method. Thanks for the suggestion!

        1. Keep a bottle of ibuprofen handy. And a bottle of scotch.

  3. Both sides of the political spectrum has reduced Rand’s message to a charicture. One thing in particular both sides often over look is that Rand was largely anti-corporatist, seeing them largely as political creatures that use government granted advantages to siphon profits from actual productive workers to hordes of shareholders that contribute nothing of value to the work of the business but stake a claim to a portion of the proceeds.

    1. Ayn Rand had nothing against corporations in and of themselves.

      1. She had something again public corporations. She felt businesses (even if legally organized as a corporation) should be single proprietorships or small partnerships and that capital should be raised through debt issue (bonds) rather than equity issue (stock). Bond reflect the proper relationship between the business and the investor: they are intitled to a finite return on their investment in exchange for the risk they assumed, not an open-ended claim on the companies future earnings or a say in the operation of the company.

        1. She had something again public corporations

          citation needed.

          She felt businesses (even if legally organized as a corporation) should be single proprietorships or small partnerships and that capital should be raised through debt issue (bonds) rather than equity issue (stock).

          Citation needed.

    2. The capital that shareholders provide to corporations is valueless? That’s an interesting theory you have there…

      1. Most shareholders don’t provide any captial to corporations. If you buy a bunch of Apple shares on the stock market, not a dime of that actually goes to the Apple corporation, yet you’re given rights to control the corporation and a claim on a portion of its profits.

        Now Rand doubtly would have found that perfectly legal since it was a voluntary arrangement, but there was something unnoble about it.

        1. If you buy a bunch of Apple shares on the stock market, not a dime of that actually goes to the Apple corporation

          Then where does it go?

          1. To the person you bought the shares from and the brokers who facilitated the exchange. The only time a company gets money from the sell of stock is during the initial offering.

              1. Why are you guys conversing with an obvious troll/sockpuppet?

                1. Why are reason commenters so quick to cry foul?

                  Seriously you guys. You make libertarians look like a bunch of closed-minded shitheads. I see what Stormy is saying, and what you are saying, no one is trolling here.

            1. For crying out loud…

              The voluntary transfer of property has the same implications vis a vis ownership for public corporations as it does for proprietorships and small partnerships.

              1. No, single proprietorships do not have their ownership diluted among thousands of people who just want to make money without being involved in the actual business of the business.

                Rearden wanted to make revolutionary new metals. Dagny wanted to build a successful railroad line from the ground up. Both of them were in the business as a creative act, and wealth flowed from that act of creation. James Taggart just wanted to make money without having to actually be productive.

                1. Nothing you’re saying makes sense. Have a nice day.

                2. SD –
                  What about Midas Mulligan?

  4. Romney didn’t use the Randian terms “looters and moochers”
    I believe the official term is “second handers”.

  5. seeing them largely as political creatures that use government granted advantages to siphon profits from actual productive workers to hordes of shareholders that contribute nothing of value to the work of the business but stake a claim to a portion of the proceeds.

    What the fuck?

    If by “Rand” you meant “Marx”, then yes.

    I mean, do you have one cite to back up what you just said?

    1. Yes, look at the treatment of Taggart Transcontinental in Atlas Shrugged, which is treated largely as the “evil business” counterpart to Rearden steel, because Rearden is run by the guy involved with the actual running of the company, whereas Taggart is run by a bunch of guys who only care about getting money out of it without having to actually do anything.

      1. Does anybody else think this is evidence in favor of Stormy’s position that Rand thought “shareholders siphon profits from productive workers”?

        Anybody other than Stormy?

        I thought not.

        1. He didn’t write that, Randian.

          “use government granted advantages to siphon profits from actual productive workers to hordes of shareholders that contribute nothing of value to the work of the business but stake a claim to a portion of the proceeds”

          has an entirely different meaning.

          Now Rand, in Atlas, didn’t seem to differentiate, IIRC, between shareholders and simple large proprietors who did the same thing. Nor did she condemn corporations as an organizational form.

          It’s not to be forgotten, though, that in Atlas, the protagonists are the few who stand apart, in a world comprised mostly of government-equalized, self-serving “crony capitalists”.

          1. Now Rand, in Atlas, didn’t seem to differentiate, IIRC, between shareholders and simple large proprietors who did the same thing. Nor did she condemn corporations as an organizational form

            Yes, exactly, which means that Stormy is “making shit up”.

          2. If rand viewed capital investment, buying shares of a corporation for example, as siphoning money away from the real workers then why was mulligan a hero? Randian is right. That’s more of a Marxist view.

            1. IIRC, Midas Mulligan invested via loaning money to companies (i.e. debt investing) rather than buying shares in them (capital investing). There was also quite a lot of emphasis on how the heroes insisted on raising money via bonds so as not to dilute the ownership of their companies. If Rand didn’t differentiate between the two, why so much time spent extolling the virtues of bonds?

      2. Right. It’s important to remember that Dagny was fighting against her own company, as much as anything.

        1. And that is evidence that Rand viewed shareholders as siphoners how again…?

      3. Not that I have an extraordinarily high opinion of Rand as either an author or a thinker, but as Randian notes, that is not evidence for a dislike of shareholders in general anymore than a Dickensian villain is evidence of Dickens’ anti-British bias.

      4. Rand saw the single proprietor, built-from-my-own-two-hands corporation as being the capitalist ideal, but I don’t think you can say that she necessarily thought a public corporation was deficient. For example, Taggart Transcontinental stayed true to Nat Taggart’s vision for several generations.

    2. This article http://www.alaskadispatch.com/…..d?page=0,0 makes reference to the fact that Ayn Rand never used the stock market herself. I also remember reading in “Letters of Ayn Rand” that she actually asked an economist once what the purpose of the stock market was.

      I say this to argue that she probably viewed the anonymous public shareholder in a negative light. Also, Corporations are a government designated entity specifically created to limit liability of consequences with regards to ones actions. Thats not exactly in line with, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

  6. The film features Fox News’ Sean Hannity

    Oh Gebus. Hannity? SRSLY? Why not just hang a black cape an pin a gold dollar sign on Bozo the clown?

    1. He’s the worst possible choice for a cameo by a “journalist”.

    2. He plugged the film on his show last night, and showed the clip. He was playing himself, arguing against the Fair Share law and defending Hank Reardon’s right to get rich off his own metal.

      Maybe some neocons will watch it and become capitalists by accident.

  7. “Second handers” is the philosophical term for those who take their ideas and judgments from other people, not reality. Looters and moochers are more precisely the people who steal things.

  8. The former is an epistemological crime; the latter a material one.

    1. I stand corrected

  9. So you wont let critics see it? Apparently it is a more expensive turd than the first film. Just watch ‘the passion of rand’ people thats all you will really need. Rand was highly overrated.

    1. Are you talking about that movie with Eric stoltz? Are you being serious?

      1. Maybe he has a thing for movies scored with constant, languid sax solos.

        1. I see. Then in at least one sense he’s right. Moody sax riffs really are all you need people.

      2. Yep the Stoltz film. Yes I am serious. The film shows the true reality of Ayn Rand: A fucked up, angry reactionary woman, who hung around a bunch of young 20 year old sycophants. And dont forget her having sex with the one who “loved her the most”. To put this woman on a pedestal along with her silly philosophy is a joke. Cant be mad at her though, she made a shit load of money, and help spawn the “intellectual” circle jerk, libertarian movement.

    2. Yet she wrote the most successful novel of the twentieth century.

  10. Wow thats crazy man, why didnt I ever think opf that?

  11. I understand you have change some things when adapting a book to film, but why make Dagny a blonde?! There’s no goddamn reason for that.

  12. That’s too bad they chose to strip down the Taggart Tunnel incident. Imagining all of the collectivists dying is one of the most satisfying parts of the book and I sure wanted to see it int he movie.

    1. Don’t worry, they’ll make up for it in the John Galt torture scene in part 3.

  13. mark it as political. But Aglialoro stressed that http://benendictdalb716.babybloggo.de/ 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.

  14. I saw Atlas Shrugged Part I and it was a sure cure for imsomnia. One can only hope that Part II is an improvement. People who are overly engaged to one or another ideology (such as the reviewer, the makers of this film, and the hard core of Ayn Rand devotees who are the film’s likely audience) should face at some point a classic truth – drama succeeds or fails not based on its underlying ideology, but on having a compelling narrative and characters capable of engaging and holding our interest. Every artist from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Steven Spielberg has understood that. Atlas Shrugged Part I failed not because of liberal critics’ bias but because it was simply a bad movie. As to the idea that having Part II come out in time for the 2012 election, with the hope that it might influence the outcome, that is highly unlikely. The few dozen folks who actually see the movie may push their levers with all the more intensity for Gary Johnson (or possibly Ryan-Romney) but it will have a negligible impact.

    1. I agree phil. Why do they even bother?

  15. I was very disappointed in Part 2. Why? Where did the atmospheric cinematography of Part 1 go? With that missing it was hard to connect with the characters in a cohesive manner (though I very liked Samantha Mathias’s take of Dagny) . Ironically, Part 2 went Hollywood (e.g. dull, inartistic movies). Since Part 1 did so bad in the theater due to critic review assassination, it was going to make a-go of Part 2 hard either way. I loved Part 1 where audience members clapped after the final scene. There was no clapping at final scene of Part 2. Did committee-think strike Part 2?

  16. Newsflash: This film was a financial turd like the first one….I guess three is the waste your money charm.

  17. I like Atlas Shrugged Part II, this is better than the first.

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