I went to see the second installment in the projected ATLAS SHRUGGED movie trilogy, and my reaction was mixed. Let me divide my reactions into the good, the bad, and the indifferent. There are some minor spoilers in this review, so read on at your own peril.
For those of you not familiar with the story: the United States of the near future is suffering from an economic depression brought on by the greed and corruption of the allegedly altruistic and upright populist and socialist reformers in all walks of life. Those whose work allows the society to continue to function, from artists to jurists to philosophers to inventors to entrepreneurs, are mysteriously vanishing one by one. Dagny Taggart, the ambitious and ultra-competent Vice President in charge of operations of an transcontinental railway, sees her nation and her company disintegrating in the rising tide of irrationality, culminating in the imposition of Directive 10-289 which outlaws normal economic activity. She seeks to find the mysterious figure behind the disappearances, the man who vowed to stop the motor of the world. Who is he? Who is John Galt?
The first good is that this movie was ever made at all. It seems that all my favorite books of my childhood and youth are being made into movies that are faithful to the original work, and as trilogies or series. That would have been (as Vizzini would say) inconceivable even a decade or so ago.
I am embarrassed to admit to my Catholic friends that this is a favorite book of mine. Yes, I actually like Ayn Rand’s monomaniacal hammering of her points and her overblown vitriolic rhetoric, which veers into self parody. I like it for several reasons.
First, she is the logical thinker. If her premises were true, her conclusions would be true. That is more than I can say for any other modern philosopher since the Nineteenth Century.
Second, I do not mind the repetition and the forty-page speeches pile-driving the same few points home over and over again. It is a sad necessity in the Twentieth Century, which future historians will call the Age of Unreason, because the preferred method of defending political, economic, social and philosophical views is Newspeak, that is, the misuse of language to obscure or invert the truth.
We live in a day and age when the Leftwing media and academia and opinion makers redefine the Paynim Terrorist as the victim, and the massmurder victims as the aggressors (as “little Eichmanns” ). In such an environment, where all the intellectuals are brutally and insolently illogical, their debates consisting of carefully calculated insults or incoherent shrieks of hysteria or both, remorseless repetition cannot be avoided. Ours is the age which has perfected the art of not listening.
Third, I like any novel that attempts to address deep issues, and that puts the study and practice of philosophy into a heroic light. I invite the reader to make a list of books where philosophy is explicitly described to be a good thing. I can think of only one other, also a science fiction book (WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt). You will be shocked at the paucity of the list, considering that we live in an age more in need of philosophy than any previous age; ours is the first era that has deliberately and consciously rejected the use of reason as a tool for discovering truth, and heaped scorn upon the idea that truth exists or can be discovered.
I hope no one is shocked if I call this a science fiction book. ATLAS SHRUGGED is in the same company as NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR and BRAVE NEW WORLD or even SIXTH COLUMN. It is a dystopia book, and cleverer than most, because it shows the step by step progress leading to the dsytopia, which Huxley and Orwell do not bother to show; and it is unique in that it has a happy ending, or at least a Pyrrhic Victory.
It concerns a daring young inventor who could have been the twin brother of Richard Seaton, who invents the secret of total conversion of energy, whoops, sorry, secret of harnessing atmospheric electricity, using his superior mind to battle an oppressive regime, striking out from his secret base hidden beneath a holographic screen of rays, while his enemies feverishly work to complete their sound-wave weapon using a futuristic metal alloy stolen from the inventor’s fellow inventor and steel magnate, M Reynolds Crane, whoops, Bedford, whoops, Impey Barbicane, whoops, Reardon. Do we recognize any of these tropes from the science fiction field?
The grounds on which I think it can be argued that ATLAS SHRUGGED is not science fiction is that it is too deep, for it deals not just with the impact of science and technology on the characters and plot, which is the core of science fiction, but the impact of the philosophy, including morality, economics, politics, epistemology, and others which form the philosophy that makes science and technology possible.
Fourth, despite that Ayn Rand discards the metaphysical and frankly religious foundations which make liberal society possible, she is a stalwart and unapologetic, even fanatical, defender of the liberal values underpinning the American Constitution and the Free Market society. She makes the case, and makes it correctly, that Capitalism is the only moral methods of distributing goods and services, as everything else requires coercion.
(By ‘liberal’ I mean ‘classical liberal’ that is, the political philosophy advocating equality, the free market and limited government. I apologize that enemies of liberty have poisoned this word by appropriating it to the use of totalitarian socialism, but it is the technically correct word to use to describe the post-Monarchic social order in the West.)
My own disagreements with Ayn Rand are few but deep and professional rather than personal. I bear her no ill will. I could get along with a Randian, and, if I did not have children, I could live in a Randian-style or Robert Heinlein-style libertarian commonwealth. It would be something like living on the Las Vegas strip. The disadvantages would be severe, but at least the state would not force me to pay for Sandra Fluke’s contraception out of wedlock.
By contrast, my disagreements with socialist both of the Marxist and Fabian style, and for their sick apologists, is inflamed with ill will. Members of my family have suffered great personal loss and hardship at the hands of those the Left applaud and shield and support; and my familiar loves, my patriotic fervor, and my zeal for the Church all combine to make my hatred for the atrocity called Socialism vehement and absolute.
So despite Ayn Rand’s poisonous atheism, her support for the abomination of prenatal child-murder, her appalling advocacy of infidelity in marriage, her gross stupidity about all human interactions that cannot be forced into a simplistic capitalistic model, I take no personal offense. I have never been harmed by an Objectivist, nor even insulted.
So, the good is that this movie was made, and it was fairly faithful to the book.
There are two places where it was not faithful, and, of these two, one is brilliant, and the other disappointing. I will mention the disappointment in a paragraph below.
To be entirely faithful, the book would have had to have been set in an alternate retro future springing out of a 1930′s America where railroads were the main form of transport and hauling, the jet plane unknown, America’s presuperpower sized Navy so small that it could not capture a modern pirate operating off the coast of New York, and radio the main mass medium. Honestly, an adaption that faithful would have been a distraction.
So the writers (John Aglialoro, Brian Patrick O’Toole) modernized the story with a very elegant conceit: gas prices in the future are prohibitive, making rail the cheapest hence main form of transport, putting the nation back in the same economic situation as the 1930′s.
This leads to an odd complaint, and it is, in fact, my main complaint with the film: the most memorable and striking image in the film, the one that drew gasps from the audience, was the 800 dollar tank of gas Dagny pumps into her truck at one point, the abandoned cars marked with “Don’t Take” signs, and one-gallon jugs of gas for sale by street vendors in New York.
The image of a post-petroleum world is the one most audience members, I have no doubt, will come away with lingering in their memory. It has particular poignancy now, with gas prices driven to an all time high, and our own version of Directive 10-289 halting offshore drilling, Hydraulic fracturing, Keystone pipelines, et al., hindering or stopping energy production. If this movie has any effect on the Election (at the time of this writing, four days hence) it will be because of that image.
Which brings us to the bad. My main complaint it that the most striking images and scenes in the book are not in the movie, and the most unforgettable characters in the book are portrayed blandly, without much fire and zeal. My complaint is that, for an Ayn Rand movie, there is not enough Ayn Rand in it.
For example, the parable of the Twentieth Century Motor Car company (which is the culmination of a long chapter of detective work on the part of Dagny and steel baron industrialist Hank Rearden, attempting to investigate the origins of an abandoned motor of nearly infinite potential) in the book is an excruciatingly clear and eye-opening examination of what actually would and does happen when a company is run taking from each according to his ability and paying to each according to his need.
In the movie, either for reasons of brevity or balance, this whole central parable and scene is merely summed up in a few lines of dialog by a character actor, the rather charming repairman who lends Dagny his truck (since he works for her company, he smiles and say, “Borrow it? It’s your truck, ma’am” and points to the Taggart logo on the door.)
Again, for reasons of brevity, the character of Ragnar Djanneskjold was eliminated. The character of Dagny, who was portrayed so ably by Taylor Schilling in the first movie, was replaced here by Samantha Mathis, who, to be blunt, is too old for the part, lacking the beauty and the fire that Dagny in the book is described as having.
Francisco D’anconia, who in the book is a gorgeous Latin playboy and man-about-town, but actually an inwardly suffering secret agent for the mysterious forces behind the disappearance, and who should have been played by a young Ricardo Montalban dressed like Erol Flynn or Fred Astair, was horribly miscast. The writers forget to tell the audience that this was Dagny’s childhood friend and ex-lover.
Francisco’s famous ‘is money the root of all evil?’ speech is in the movie, but it falls curiously flat, because the film makers did not take the time to set up the trivial shallowness of the partygoers. Nor does movie establish their parasitical relationship with Francisco’s copper mines; and the culmination of the scene in the book, where Francisco with malicious glee causes a bank panic when he lets slip that his shares are worthless — in other words, showing to those who claim money is evil exactly what the results of their philosophy in action would be, were it not for their dependence on the altruism of the productive members of society whom they despise — was simply not in the movie.
Eddie Willers was horribly miscast. Instead of the loyal and rabbitty man from the book, he was portrayed by a looming and muscular man who exuded an air of confidence and strength. He should have played Francisco.
But lest I be accused of one-sidedness, let me hasten to add that Hank Rearden was correctly cast, and the actor did a brilliant job, and the scene where he defies the ‘Fair Share’ board despite the threat of prison made me want to stand and cheer. Cheryl Taggart, despite that she has only one or two lines, was well cast, and make her character real and convincing, and the shrewish Lillian Rearden was likewise perfectly cast, and perfectly memorable.
Which brings me to the indifferent. This movie could have been great, despite being the middle of a trilogy, but it did not try hard enough. The audience should have been cheering when Francisco risks his life to save the mills during the scene of the explosion at the Rearden steel plant, and should have been sick to their stomach when the bad guys push through the Executive Order 10-289, excuse me, I mean Directive 10-289. The points in the movie were not hammered home on an emotional level.
I think, all in all, the movie makers made a mistake of not playing up the melodrama which is the main appeal of the book. With all due respect to my Objectivist friends, the characters in ATLAS SHRUGGED are meant to be two dimensional and simplistic, or, to put it more flatteringly, archetypes. The good guys are supposed to represent the goodness of reason, self reliance, love and productivity, and the bad guys are supposed to leer and twirl their mustaches and flourish their black capes while tying the maiden to the railroad tracks, or, in this case, tearing up the railroad tracks in the name of altruism. The movie failed to make the characters broad and clear and outrageous, which was one of the main strengths of the book.
Let me conclude by saying that I am not necessarily the correct audience for the movie. I have read and reread the book, and the movie was made for those who have not.
Indeed, I am such a fanboy of ATLAS SHRUGGED that when a character came on stage named “Mr Small” I knew immediately that this was not a name from anyone in the book, because, despite the high number of characters, I knew all their names. Of course, there is one character who is never given a name, at least, not a last name: the ‘Wet Nurse’ assigned by the government as a political officer to oversee Hank Rearden’s operations. “Small” is a perfect name for Mr Non-Absolute. I am sure Ayn Rand would have approved.
As I said, the good, the bad, and the indifferent for me is summed up in the fact that watching Dagny pump an 800 tank of gas while a wary gas station owner, shotgun in hand, watches her through a screen door is the most memorable image in the film. It is a good image, and it strikes home to the audience, some of whom filled up their tanks with petrol produced under our current ‘mixed economy’ — Obamagas — on their way to the theater.
Bu the most striking scene in the book was absent from the film. No, I do not mean the scene where the lights of New York go out — although that also has a topical reference this week — I mean this:
The six thousand of us were crowded on bleachers built way up to the rafters of the plant’s largest hangar. We had just voted for the new plan and we were in an edgy sort of mood, making too much noise, cheering the people’s victory, threatening some kind of unknown enemies and spoiling for a fight, like bullies with an uneasy conscience. There were white arclights beating down on us and we felt kind of touchy and raw, and we were an ugly, dangerous mob in that moment. Gerald Starnes, who was chairman, kept hammering his gavel for order, and we quieted down some, but not much, and you could see the whole place moving restlessly from side to side, like water in a pan that’s being rocked. ‘This is a crucial moment in the history of mankind!’ Gerald Starnes yelled through the noise. ‘Remember that none of us may now leave this place, for each of us belongs to all the others by the moral law which we all accept!’
‘I don’t,’ said one man and stood up. He was one of the young engineers. Nobody knew much about him. He’d always kept mostly by himself. When he stood up, we suddenly turned dead-still. It was the way he held his head. He was tall and slim — and I remember thinking that any two of us could have broken his neck without trouble — but what we all felt was fear. He stood like a man who knew that he was right. ‘I will put an end to this, once and for all,’ he said. His voice was clear and without any feeling. That was all he said and started to walk out. He walked down the length of the place, in the white light, not hurrying and not noticing any of us. Nobody moved to stop him. Gerald Starnes cried suddenly after him, ‘How?’ He turned and answered, ‘I will stop the motor of the world.’ Then he walked out. We never saw him again.
We never heard what became of him. But years later, when we saw the lights going out, one after another, in the great factories that had stood solid like mountains for generations, when we saw the gates closing and the conveyor belts turning still, when we saw the roads growing empty and the stream of cars draining off, when it began to look as if some silent power were stopping the generators of the world and the world was crumbling quietly, like a body when its spirit is gone — then we began to wonder and to ask questions about him. We began to ask it of one another, those of us who had heard him say it.
We began to think that he had kept his word, that he, who had seen and known the truth we refused to know, was the retribution we had called upon our heads, the avenger, the man of that justice which we had defied. We began to think that he had damned us and there was no escape from his verdict and we would never be able to get away from him — and this was the more terrible because he was not pursuing us, it was we who were suddenly looking for him and he had merely gone without a trace. We found no answer about him anywhere. We wondered by what sort of impossible power he could have done what he had promised to do. There was no answer to that. We began to think of him whenever we saw another collapse in the world, which nobody could explain, whenever we took another blow, whenever we lost another hope, whenever we felt caught in this dead, gray fog that’s descending all over the earth. Perhaps people heard us crying that question and they did not know what we meant, but they knew too well the feeling that made us cry it. They, too, felt that something had gone from the world. Perhaps this was why they began to say it, whenever they felt that there was no hope. I’d like to think that I am wrong, that those words mean nothing, that there’s no conscious intention and no avenger behind the ending of the human race. But when I hear them repeating that question, I feel afraid. I think of the man who said that he would stop the motor of the world. You see, his name was John Galt.”