‘Atlas Shrugged’—Should You, Too?
by Doug McQuiston
"Atlas Shrugged: Part I" is a faithful big-screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s dense, self-important tome. The filmmaker, (the very non-Hollywood conservative CEO of the Cybex exercise machine company, John Aglialoro) split the epic into what is intended to be three releases. Parts two and three will follow, if he can find the money.That may be a big "if."
Not surprisingly, the "liberal Hollywood elite" give it no shot. After all, it was the movie Hollywood could never make, not that it didn’t try. So, Aglialoro bought the soon-to-expire rights and made it himself. Maybe he doesn’t care about the Hollywood cold shoulder, but money’s money, so parts two and three aren’t exactly in the can yet. For now, there are plans to get part two in production in early 2012.
As The Docket Committee’s token conservative, I was asked to review "Atlas Shrugged" (aptly released on the big screen on April 15, 2011), now out on DVD. You may have missed it in the theaters. It didn’t exactly linger, and never made it to wide release. Opening respectably—at $1.7 million, 14th overall, on opening weekend in just 300 theaters—it faded fast, going from making about $5,640 per screen opening weekend to $1,895 the following weekend. After six weeks, it still had not recouped even half of its absurdly low $10 million cost. Too bad, considering I liked the film overall.
The movie opens in a dark, dystopic America in 2016. In Rand’s world, railroads were king, so her protagonist, Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), is naturally head of a transcontinental railroad. The film gets around this anachronism cleverly—the opening scenes show disturbances in the global oil market that have driven gas to stratospheric levels. Several air crashes have frightened flyers, leaving rail as the only viable option. A little suspension of disbelief goes a long way here, so just go with it.
Colorado is central to the plot. In the movie, our state is a booming, conservative, free-market mecca, bucking the national trend toward decay, government meddling, and collapse through good old-fashioned free-wheeling entrepreneurism. (Did I mention suspension of disbelief?) It was fun, though bittersweet, to see my beloved home state depicted as the broad-shouldered last, best chance of capitalism. Oh, were it only true!
Faced with deteriorating rails in Colorado, which cause a horrific accident, Dagny knows she needs to replace track fast to serve one of her biggest customers, rip-snorting Colorado oilman Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel, ironically, the real life brother of liberal commentator Bob Beckel). She can’t find any rail suppliers who can do the job. Government intervention in the markets has driven off all but a few favored suppliers, and they can’t meet her deadlines because they’re incompetent.
But fate draws her to Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), head of Rearden Metal Corp. Rearden has just come out with a revolutionary new metal. This stuff is lighter, stronger, and easier to work with than any other metal on the market. He tells Dagny he can get her rails—on time, and on budget.
But as in present-day America, future America is plagued with a government that picks winners and losers in industry, deciding which industries are favored, and which should be destroyed. Because Rearden’s competitors can’t compete with his metal, they do what any good American corporation would do—go to Washington to buy enough government muscle to shut him down. Soon, the government is on Rearden’s case, forcing him to dispose of companies one by one to break him.
As the movie progresses, Dagny and Hank struggle to beat a stacked deck. We see more and more of their fellow industrialists "disappearing." The movie’s unseen protagonist, John Galt, is convincing them to withdraw from the economy to, as he puts it, "stop the motor of the world." Will Dagny and Hank triumph, or will the system (or Galt) drag them down?
The screenplay improves the overwrought Rand dialogue, and does its best to put some pace into the glacially slow-moving novel. Although there were still a few too many "standing and talking" scenes for my taste, the movie held my interest. The ending was one of the best parts of the film. It beautifully set up part two, and left me hoping it does well enough to get there.
Now, for the downside. The low budget shows onscreen. The acting is workmanlike, but just that. It also relies too heavily on dark lighting to establish the noir gestalt it is shooting for, with some scenes so poorly lit they were hard to follow. The heavily-colored Colorado scenery shots make up for that to an extent, but at times are so vivid the contrast is jarring. The effects, too, show the director got what he could pay for. With the exception of the climactic Colorado "train run" scene (loyal Rand readers will know what I’m talking about here) with a beautiful CGI-drawn bridge built of Rearden metal, the other effects scenes look like they were done by earnest, but poorly funded, college film students.
So, is it worth a spot on your video shelf? That depends. If you’re one of the Federalist Society members who were at the screening I attended, wearing your Ayn Rand T-shirt, you’re probably already on the waiting list.
For the rest of us? It’s worth a spot on your Netflix queue. The movie was a good-faith, entertaining attempt to bring the Rand vision to the screen. It worked to a point, and at a little over an hour-and-a-half takes a lot less time than re-reading the book. If parts two and three do get made, I will watch both.
But even non-Hollywood elite types like producer Aglialoro know that movies run on money. Ayn Rand (a former screenwriter herself) would want nothing less. That’s how it works in free-wheeling capitalism, after all. As Aglialoro said in a recent interview: "I learned something long ago playing poker: If you think you’re beat, don’t go all in."
At this point, I give it no better odds than filling an inside straight. D