Film Review: ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part 1′

Taylor Schilling is Dagny Taggart, a strong, independent woman keeping the family railroad business (railroads being the dominant mode of transportation in AS’s alternate future due to restrictive oil prices) alive despite the irresponsibility, short-sightedness, and political exploitation of her co-manager and brother James.

A major disaster on one of the lines leads Dagny to replace the tracks with a new kind of steel alloy developed by like-minded entrepreneur Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), who shares Dagny’s independent spirit and is similarly being worn down through a miasma of regulations spearheaded by corrupt politicians and competitors. And against this backdrop is the ongoing disappearance of the country’s most productive members and the pervasive question, “Who is John Galt?”

I didn’t get a screening invitation to the film; I paid to see and went with a friend and die-hard fan of Ayn Rand. And while I agree with Rand on many of her points, both my friend and I left the theater disappointed. Atlas doesn’t quite deserve the scathing reviews it’s been getting, but it’s not a good film either—regardless of where you stand on Rand’s philosophy.

I think the major problem is that it expects you to know Rand’s philosophy beforehand—or at least have read and appreciated the book. And I don’t doubt that fans of the book will be delighted simply to see Francisco make his first appearance or Rearden expostulate the virtues of individuality with a sleazy journalist—they know the context—but few others do, and the film does no service to itself and Rand by requiring the viewer to fill in the blanks. This is perhaps best exemplified in an offhand line where Rearden casually vilifies altruism. To someone who knows Rand’s views on altruism, it makes perfect sense, but for anyone who doesn’t, it’s going to seem callous and alienating. It’s not that these concepts and issues can’t be made relatable (which is not to say “dumbed down”), it’s that the filmmakers barely even try.

Myself and others have been criticized for our confusion and subsequent dislike of the Harry Potter and Twilight films by fans who dismiss those criticisms as mere ignorance of the source material. How many times have you been scolded with the phrase, “Well, you need to read the book”? The same applies here, and my response is, “Then why watch the movie?” An adaptation should not be companion piece; it should stand on its own, as its own. It doesn’t have to appeal to everyone—that would render it a heap of soulless placation—but it should tell its own story, be an offspring, not a clone.

And I’m even more incensed with AS because I personally feel that Rand’s warnings against the dangers of government suppression of the individual spirit has merit, importance, and would make for a compelling film. But in the 50-plus years since the novel’s debut, you’d think the screenwriters had ample time to come up with a screenplay that works around Rand’s utter lack of subtlety.

For the first 70 minutes the dialogue is exposition after exposition. So much so that you may as well be reading the screenplay than listen to anyone talk. And it’s less people talking with one another than one setting another up for a long speech on their personal worldviews, whether solicited or not. True, that’s how they speak in the book and is a cornerstone of Rand’s style, but it’s a ponderous style that resists interest. Even if it works in a book, the medium of film has the advantage of visually broadcasting its characters’ thoughts and intentions, an advantage the screenwriters ignore. The scene where Dagny trades her extravagant necklace for a bracelet of Rearden steel with his wife is a good example of how the film dwells on forced speech to explain what could be said in a meager few shots. Likewise, a dialogue polish and some speech trimmings could have saved the movie.

Yet after the first half, the film actually does get better. Initially AS is never quite sure of what it is, drifting among the genres of political thriller, rags-to-riches, romance, high-society drama, mystery, so on, and skirting the compelling elements of each one—until Dagny leaves her company to found her own. From there the film finally takes off and even effectively weaves in the story threads of Dagny’s venture, her budding romance with Rearden, and the looming clouds in Washington.

In all, I can’t recommend it for anyone new to Rand, and that’s the disappointment my friend and I shared. There’s something good in there, and some issues and ideas worth discussing. I only hope Parts II and III follow the second half of Part I and dare to stray from the book, or during the interim the filmmakers at least ask themselves what they’re doing: Are they trying to bring Ayn Rand to a mass audience or are they simply servicing the fans? If it’s the latter, why make the film at all?

  • LibertyBowl
    April 28, 2011 at 5:32 am

    Nat,

    I just saw the movie and got out of the theater about an hour ago. I couldn’t disagree with your review more, although my reception of it could be clouded by the fact that I did read the book and many before me, it gave voice to many thoughts and notions that were previously unexpressed and inchoate. Nevertheless, Rand did not make any assumptions of her audience’s understanding and if the film did so, I don’t see how that is a valid criticism of the film qua a “film.” I wouldn’t disagree that it might be – and almost certainly has been – a significant impediment to a positive reception by critics, the box office and popular culture. However, I don’t see how that impairs this flim’s ability to tell the story that the book told.

    As you know, the inability to compromise one’s principles in art, science and commerce is a touchstone of the Randian philosophy as expounded by Atlas the book. The group that put this film together most assuredly comes from that same place (contrary to the Fountainhead, Atlas has gone through hell and back to get to cinema – a fair amount of that due to the refusal to compromise by those holding the film rights including, for many years after Atlas was published in 1957, Rand herself) and if that fault made its way into film in the manner that is the centerpiece of your criticism, so be it.

    You are entirely correct in your assertion that flim adaptions of book (popular or otherwise) should stand on their own and I think this picture does exactly that. I thought that the plot moved forward from the very beginning – the stage and context is set in the opening minutes and allows the conflicts between Dagny and James, Rearden and his wife, and the politicians and the businesses to move things forward. Additionally, the mysterious disappearances of the best “producers” starts immediately and threads through the film’s entirety. The book did the same (frankly, it took me two attempts over several months to get through the book’s first 500 pages – appropriately enough since it’s a film, this moved much more quickly and engagingly than that). For those unacquainted with Rand and the book, I would gather that the consistent and continual disappearances are sufficiently engaging (unless, of course, you get fed up philosophically with the words coming respectively from the heroes and the villians of the story) – and, I think this is aided by the somewhat cheesy device of the computer-type giving “just the facts” of each disappearance.

    About those words, they were way less overdone than I expected – there’s nowhere near the monologue and extended, closed dialogue that charactizes the book. The filmmakers, I believe, were acutely aware of the dangers presented by having too much fidelity to the book in this regard and did rather well in avoiding them. Nearly all of the points were delivered in what I found to have been crisp, plot-driven exchanges that retained, for most part, the philosophical punch of the book. The two you’ve siezed on – the offhand line about altruism and the exchange of bracelets between Dagny and Mrs. Rearden – we’re not too much and did convey the thoughts quite well. The altruism line was indeed offhand and not the extended monologue that a) it could have been, and b) it was in the book – you rightly point out that it has potential to offend, but your criticism akin to Paul’s line about “but you shouldn’t say it.” Why not? It’s a salient point of Rand and the school of thought she founded (and I’m not a Randroid either) and it needed to be placed in the film – a throwaway line, which I agree that it was, might have been the best way to do it.

    The bracelet exchange was brilliant, in my opinion. It showed quite well the “thoughts and intentions” of the two characters involved, both visually and in dialogue. Each woman is displayed in the scene: Rearden’s wife, who doesn’t get her husband and what he is about, is directly engaged with Dagny, who very much gets Rearden and what he is about. The scene also ties in completely and fully to the one where the bracelet was first presented. The first scene is summed up by Rearden’s mother-in-law: “a decent man would have gotten diamonds – for her pleasure, not his own” (or something like that, I didn’t write it down). The second is summed up thusly: “Dagny and I are in a negotiation.” The tone and delivery of each are in perfect consonance with the characters’ “thoughts and intentions.”

    At any rate, I obviously thought the film was successful. I’m sure there’s some things I didn’t like or I thought could have been done better. I suppose maybe I’m disappointed with your disappointment – as one who believes the notions of the book and movie have merit, I thought you would have liked it more. I also think, though, that your criticisms are a little beside the point – in my opinion, there was just much more to like than not like. The first run on the John Galt was very well and at least a little inspiring – the party following it was too.

    Take care and I’ll look forward to reading more of your reviews.

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