Saturday, April 16, 2011

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part I

There are two things that must be contended with when writing about Atlas Shrugged the movie: the writer’s relationship to the source material and the movie itself. I will cover the movie on its own merits first, difficult as that is.

The 2011 movie of Atlas Shrugged can best be understood as a comic book or—as the better ones out there are called—a graphic novel. The filmmaking style is almost impressionistic, giving the audience only quick bits and pieces like George Lucas might. The quick cuts and story pacing make handy work of condensing 300 pages of Ayn Rand’s 1957 polemical novel into a tidy 1 hour 42 minutes. In addition to the rapid cuts between scenes, a lot of background material is revealed in short news snippets akin to The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. I was pleased with the visual design of the film, as much or most of what I saw on the screen is as I imagined it to be when I read the book 15-odd years ago. That's either fortunate circumstance or a testament to Rand's literary ability to conjure up scenes in the reader's mind. The screenwriters also were clever in bringing the story up to the near future and in creating a world in which railroads are again dominant.

As far as the acting goes, as expected the most vivid characters are Rand’s leading protagonists: the railroad magnate Dagny Taggart and the steel manufacturer Hank Rearden. The actress portraying Dagny manages to display emotion at the precise moments she’s supposed to: when she’s worshipping people or moments of achievement. The actor playing Rearden is similarly dead-on in his portrayal, as Rearden is admirable on his terms—doing impressive work with a new metal—but completely off-putting within his social circle because all that motivates him is his work and the money he gains from it.

I’ve read critics complaining about the acting of the other parts, though I liked character actor Graham Beckel’s turn as Ellis Wyatt and Edi Gathegi’s work as Eddie Willers. The critics ignore the fact that Rand’s characterizations of her villains was purposely bland. Individuals not standing up for Rand’s Capitalistic Man of the Future are non-entities in the movie, as they are in the book. In Rand’s world, you’re either with her and a colorful hero, or you’re against her, and you’re a nobody. When you’re given that sort of source material, it’s not like you can chew up a lot of scenery with it. If the critics don’t like it, Rand might have said, too bad. She was not exactly what we’d call inclusive or politically correct.

It is Rand’s cold-blooded, larger-than-life characters that make Atlas Shrugged most like a comic book. Instead of wearing capes and wielding super powers, Rand’s heroes wear suits and wield money and ideas. They whirl about in a world of elegant homes, sleek offices, hard-driven work sites, and fashionable parties. Call it wish fulfillment for the hard-working or the striving. And, as with comic books in real life, they make a poor basis for a life philosophy or worldview. However, that doesn’t stop people from reading comic books, does it? The costumed heroes of DC or Marvel stand for certain things: persistence or humor or grace under pressure, a willingness to fight for what’s good and right, or resourcefulness in the face of evil. No one would question these traits as admirable or worth pursuing, but not at all costs, and certainly not to the point of donning some Spandex longjohns and hitting the mean streets looking to fight criminals. The point of heroes, going back to Odysseus, isn’t to be those people, but be like them.

And I suppose here is where, as an “angry young man” (my friend Anthony’s words), that I most agreed with Rand: I was a bit of a slacker in my 20s, but I found Rand’s paean to achievement something I could respect and believe in. I wasn’t doing much with myself or my talents in my mid-twenties and I was struggling against the demands of my job in the service industry. It would take a certain space conference a few years after reading Atlas Shrugged to channel my desire to make a difference and do something worthwhile with my life. For that, I owe some of my current success to Rand.

Taggart, Rearden, and the other heroes of the movie stand for achievement and acquisition of personal wealth for its own sake. They want a world in which they are left alone to build new materials, better machines, or bigger business empires. In Rand’s philosophical theory of Objectivism, the whole of humanity benefits from this sort of egoism, as they allow large numbers of people to have more efficient machines, better standards of living, and opportunities to be productive through jobs. However, that is merely a side-effect, in Rand's view: the pursuit of selfish goals is what leads to success, not the pursuit of others' happiness.

Rand’s heroes can be contrasted with the obstacles put in their path: confiscatory tax policies, “anti-dog-eat-dog” laws, and arm-twisting unions. There can be but one purpose to all of these obstacles in Rand’s world: theft from the achievers to satisfy the wants or needs of the jealous and less gifted. And here, for me, is where Rand’s philosophy always falls apart. She opened my eyes to a crucial fact about human existence: all men are not created equal--not everyone can be Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden. Given that, what’s to be done with or for individuals not as gifted as the inventors or tycoons of the world? In Rand’s mind, little to nothing. If you have a sense of compassion, in Rand’s world, it’s acceptable to act upon that feeling, as long as you’re only doing so because it benefits you. Otherwise, to hell with those lesser mortals…and that’s something I cannot accept.

Objectivism is a philosophy of humorless justification for those who achieve but don’t have any great desire to share the fruits of their labor with others. You can live that way, mind you, but you won’t have a lot of friends or a particularly happy old age or afterlife, in my opinion. As I’ve moved along in life, I’ve donated more of my time and money to worthwhile causes because I’ve felt a sense of voluntary obligation. One would like to think that our society would inculcate such virtues as a matter of course without requiring government mandates that breed resentment, but apparently that’s not going to happen.

Will they make Parts II and III of Atlas Shrugged? I actually hope so. There were moments in the film that made me want to applaud. Rand deserves a full, honest hearing. But her philosophy also needs to be put in context and contrasted with other ways of living (perhaps we’re due for a remake of Lost Horizon?). Rand's comic-book world does an excellent job of setting up and knocking down straw men and extreme cases, but her depiction of the dark sides of government action or altruism cannot be ignored, either...nor can the real-world examples of greed run amok in our world today. So go see the movie. Reading the book first will give you have a better idea of what you’re seeing. Ignore the critics, and make up your own mind.

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