Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike, the second installment of a film adaptation of Ayn Rand's classic novel, was released splat in the middle of election season. And the onscreen tale of an overweening and desperate government stealing from and hobbling productive industrialists certainly felt timely. The movie's TV ad campaign even explicitly asked whether it would sway the outcome of the election.
But at a Los Angeles screening of the film, one of its producers and lead financiers, John Aglialoro, stressed in his pre-film remarks that neither side of the left-right divide can uncomplicatedly embrace Rand's philosophy. Both the conventional left and right, Aglialoro said, espouse altruism, which Rand saw as a great moral evil. (Rand used the word "altruism" not in its colloquial sense of behaving benevolently but to mean, in her words, the notion that "man has no right to exist for his own sake…that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty.") Still, the filmmaker understood his movie's potential for ginning up anti-government (and likely anti-Obama) emotions and he urged the right to make room for Randians in their coalition, despite their atheism, which often alarms religious conservatives.
Atlas II is tonally aimed at a right-wing audience, the sort of people who thought Mitt Romney was right-on when he dismissed nearly half the country—those who are "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it." Romney didn't use the Randian term "looters and moochers" for that now-famous 47 percent, but he might as well have.
The film features Fox News' Sean Hannity in an as-himself cameo arguing Atlas' theme, as the government tries to confiscate metal magnate Henry Rearden's amazing alloy, Rearden metal. Rearden, Hannity insists, is "a hero, an innovator, a job creator" and the "Fair Share" law hobbling him "is more big government" and "will result in failure." But as he rose to national prominence, Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan still chose to retreat from his reputation as a Rand fan.
Given the care with which Rand raveled her tale, it's surprising that Part II is fully understandable with zero explicit recapping; 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 very nearly the last competent industrialists in a world rendered dysfunctional by a government-caused sclerosis, with economic policy decisions based on cronyism and justified in the name of fairness. People of ability—musicians, scientists, other industrialists—are mysteriously disappearing, to the immense frustration of Taggart and Rearden. Still, they feel bound to keep doing their best no matter how much their government or culture disrespects them.
Rand's heady, nightmarish fantasy of a world run according to the principles of state-enforced equality doesn't lend itself to naturalistic or colloquial humor. 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. When Rearden mutters an ironic "catchy" after he's told the government will rename his alloy Miracle Metal, it weakens the steely core of the character. Fans of the novel will similarly be discomfited when Francisco D'Anconia (Esai Morales, in the movie's most consistently delightful performance) offers Rearden the too of-the-moment quip, "How's that working out for you?"
Beghe gives Rearden a gravelly imperturbability, like an industrial crime boss, which works pretty well when he defies a government kangaroo court with a brave declaration of his rights as a creator. But Beghe fails to convey that this man is not just angry but tortured by his misunderstanding of what true morality means in a world where creators are abused. The Atlas filmmakers have gone out of their way to talk up Taggart as one of the great iconic heroines of 20th century literature, but Mathis isn't given much of a chance to sell super competence or steely heroism. She is by turns peeved, annoyed, or surprised by events around her. Her big action moments are grabbing a map to re-route a train line in an emergency and crashing a plane.
The movie reduces Rand's message to the Tea Party–friendly one: government economic management and stealing from the productive are bad. There is one hat tip to Rand's deeper defense of reason and rationality, which underlay her hatred for altruism and statism: A smarty-pants young liberal is lecturing Rearden about how one mustn't get trapped in rigid principles, and Rearden snaps back that you can't pour steel without rigid principles.
But the entire novel, in its way, is about the terrors that can arise from seemingly innocent or merely "philosophical" beliefs. Atlas II features Rand's most wild and vivid dramatization of this point—a spectacular train crash—as its climax. In the novel, the scene derives its power from brief glimpses into the heads of many different passengers to show how their irrational or altruistic or statist beliefs snowball into the series of mistakes that cause the wreck of their own train. A film simply can't duplicate that breathtaking patchwork. Onscreen, a single arrogant and supercilious politician bears all the weight of the scene. The train wreck feels like an ordinary crash caused by a single mistake, not the inevitable culmination of centuries of bad philosophy.
No one expected Atlas to make it to the big screen totally intact. But this film is a labor of love for its makers regardless. Atlas Part II had double the budget and debuted in more than twice the theaters of 2011's critically drubbed Part I. It also has an entirely new cast and a beefed up screenwriting team. Its core audience will probably forgive its flaws in their eagerness to love it as well. The film is professionally polished and does what it sets out to do, within the unavoidable limits of its form. But it will likely not change any minds or lives the way Rand's source material can and does.