Atlas Shrugged (Film)

ATLAS SHRUGGED (The Strike Productions)

Is it possible to critique this film without reading the novel and discussing the author?  Written by Ayn Rand and published in 1957, booksellers call Atlas Shrugged a “perennial favorite.”  In fact, it currently holds the number one and two positions on Amazon’s Bestsellers in Classic Literature and Fiction.

Notably, it once placed second in a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives.  The Bible came in first. 

Ayn Rand was a devoted atheist and her major protagonists adhere to this creed.  Indeed, in the Atlas Shrugged novel, Dagny Taggart’s only “temple” is a railroad concourse and “prayer” consists of adoration of a statue of an ancestor who was a very successful businessman.

Nonetheless, people with strong spiritual beliefs as well as atheists embrace Rand’s novels.  Besides her belief in “rational self-interest” and a “rational moral code” (she founded the very popular philosophy known as Objectivism), Rand unabashedly proclaimed a reverence for human potential and “productive achievement.”  She believed fervently in hero-worship and paid homage to defiantly independent, courageous men and women who fight societies that seem determined to quash individualism.  Rand championed the right to make money for money’s sake and the right to spend it without being held prisoner by government or societal expectations.

Ayn Rand, born in 1905 to Jewish parents in Russia, was no doubt heavily influenced by her early years.  She experienced the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the stripping away of her father’s “bourgeois” business.  The family lived on the brink of starvation for years.  Later, her father was allowed to open a collective chemist shop with five other men but it was “abruptly nationalized” by the Communist government once it began to prosper.  According to Barbara Brandon’s The Passion of Ayn Rand, “That had been the purpose of the New Economic Policy: to allow former bourgeoisie to work long enough to present the regime with businesses worth looting.” 

Ayn Rand immigrated to the U.S. in 1926 and published four novels.  She regarded Atlas Shrugged as occurring in the “near future” regardless of when it’s read (link).  The film is based on the first third of the book and is set in 2016.

The U.S. is in crisis.  Conflicts in the Middle East have caused oil imports to be cut off and there are severe gas shortages.  The Dow Jones has dipped dangerously low, steel mills are shutting down all over the country, another major oil spill has occurred, and the only affordable means of transportation is by train.

One of the worst rail accidents in recent history occurs to the Taggart Transcontinental, the largest remaining railroad company in America.  James Taggart, the bumbling President of Taggart Transcontinental, hasn’t updated the 100-year-old Rio Norte Line since his father ran the company and it’s in deplorable condition.  His sister, Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operation, upbraids him in his elegant New York office.  She warns him they can’t afford to lose their major patron, Ellis Wyatt, a remarkable industrialist who somehow revived exhausted oil wells in Colorado.  Many of their customers are switching to the Phoenix-Durango Railroad.

Dagny then boldly announces to her stupefied brother that she’s broken his 13-month contract with Orren Boyle’s Associated Steel because the company hadn’t followed through on its promise to re-rail the Rio Norte Line.  Dagny wants to hire Rearden Metal.  Hank Rearden had been the chief supplier of Taggart Transcontinental for ten years until James had switched to the shoddy, smaller company.

In addition, Hank Rearden has invented a remarkable alloy that’s not only ten times tougher than steel, it’s lighter and cheaper.  Dagny, who studied Engineering in college, confidently predicts, “It will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”

However, Dagny’s brother resents dealing with Rearden.  James is an acolyte of a theory promulgated in society that smaller businesses—even if they’re untrustworthy and inefficient—should be given precedence over established, respected enterprises.  Rearden’s integrity and business acumen have made him a very successful owner of numerous companies but James has a hatred of “monopolies.”

“Every man must subordinate his interests for the collective whole,” James announces to his Washington D.C. lobbyist in one scene.

James’ questionable policies are also responsible for the building of the San Sebastian Line which runs from Texas to impoverished Mexico.  Dagny, hearing rumors that the People’s State of Mexico might nationalize all businesses, infuriates her brother by stripping the San Sebastian Line down to a wood-burning locomotive pulling only one passenger train a day.

A major player in the movie on both an economical and personal level is the “depraved playboy” Francisco d’Anconia.  Descended from a very prestigious family, he’s the “copper king of the world” who’s never failed in a business transaction.  When he purchased vast amounts of property in undeveloped parts of Mexico, socially conscious businessmen who habitually censured him and his alleged libertine lifestyle nonetheless were among the first to buy shares in his San Sebastian mines.

Francisco and Dagny had once been lovers.  The brilliant Francisco, whom excited college professors had predicted would “change the course of the world,” had inexplicably turned bad.  Dagny hasn’t seen him in years.

Respectable people are vanishing as if into thin air: Banking and marketing CEO’s and other executives and even artists.  One leaves a letter behind that contains a single cryptic sentence:  Who is John Galt?

Meanwhile, tycoons like Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, and Ellis Wyatt struggle with “progressive” but damaging social policies and unexplainable new regulations.  The National Alliance of Railroads passes the Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule which is supposed to stop “destructive competition” but, in reality, punishes successful business people for their accomplishments while favoring special interest groups.  Legislation like the Equalization of Opportunity Bill is passed which makes it illegal for people to own more than one company.

Hank Rearden pares down to Rearden Metal and continues to honor his nine-month contract with Dagny Taggart to re-rail the Rio Norte Line with his new alloy.  The wide sweeping possibilities of this remarkable metal are endless: Armor plating, naval ships, spacecraft, jets twice the normal size but one-half the weight….

However, the State Science Institute—the only establishment of its kind that’s still in existence, albeit connected to the government — denounces Hank Rearden’s new alloy without due cause.  The Taggart Transcontinental stocks plummet.  Dagny believes the existence of Taggart Transcontinental – indeed, the welfare of the economically depressed country — is dependent on the Rio Norte Line and she starts her own company.  She’s backed into a corner again when a locomotive union refuses to allow its employees to work for her.

Hank and Dagny, who almost seem to be philosophical mirror images of each other, bond with each other as challenges escalate, and become lovers.

This is an independent film with a relatively small budget but the screenplay, which is very faithful to the novel, is very dynamic and the pace rarely lags.  (There are numerous and maybe unnecessary scenes of the rural countryside.)  Wonderful detail was paid even to the characters’ superb wardrobes, down to the quality and cut of the men’s suits and Dagny’s dresses.  A musical score worthy of character Richard Halley’s concertos would have been a fabulous addition.

The casting director made some brilliant choices.  Taylor Schilling, who plays Dagny Taggart, is spell-binding.  She’s confident without being overbearing, completely believable as an idealistic and intelligent, high-ranking railroad executive.  (Only one of her scenes falter: Stilted dialogue between her and Hank Rearden regarding his right to charge what he wants for his company’s services was taken directly from the novel and has always been awkward in print.)

Edi Gathegi plays Eddie Willers, Dagny’s Executive Assistant, and infuses him with an innate dignity and inner strength.  When an angry oil well tycoon in Dagny’s office begins to rake her over the coals, Eddie, standing in the shadows, calls her name – and you know from the inflection alone that he would willingly die for her.

Graham Beckel plays Ellis Wyatt, the no-nonsense “prodigy” whose oil wells are keeping Colorado economically afloat.  Graham is riveting to watch and listen to, completely comfortable in the skin of a brusque but highly competent CEO who doesn’t care what other people think of him.    He steals Taylor Schilling’s thunder in a key scene, something very difficult to do.

Rebecca Wisocky plays Hank Rearden’s wife and is more likable in the film than in the novel.  She’s snobbish but playful, and very artful in all of her scenes.  Her dialogue is taut and even witty; it’s obvious her character has a mind like a steel trap.  This could play out well in future installments of this film.

Jsu Garcia plays Francisco D’Anconia.  There’s no trace of his hidden brilliance; he’s slovenly and moves clumsily…an artful disguise.  However, it would have been nice if a spark from his genius had been allowed to fan into flame a little.

Matthew Marsden plays James Taggart exactly as he’s portrayed in the novel: A thoroughly disagreeable if not pathetically shallow character.  Marsden’s dialogue contains details essential to the storyline but it’s unfortunate that his rapid-fire speech sometimes results in dropped syllables and his sentences sometimes trail off.

Geoff Pierson and Jack Milo are marvelous as the disappearing CEO’s who are accosted during evening’s dark shadows by a man wearing a fedora.  They have very small parts but, even so, come across as confident yet wary, and maybe a little world weary, men whose words can be trusted as much as their signatures on a contract.

Did the screenwriters believe that the majority of moviegoers would have already read the very complex novel?  The screenplay sometimes whizzes through critical key points.  For example, an early, crucial scene where Hank Rearden responds to the smiling reproaches of his wife and ill-natured company of his mother and brother doesn’t define the latter two characters as family members.  Someone who watched the film with me felt a little lost.

Also, some of the early scenes involving major characters who are holding key conversations fade away before they finish their sentences, leaving holes in the storyline for viewers not familiar with the novel.

It’s been said that many theaters refused to allow pre-screenings of Atlas Shrugged and that major news networks refused to air a short advertisement.  Nonetheless, this film was obviously a labor of love and hopefully there will be two more installments to complete the novel.  It’s an intricate movie that will wear well with time, improving with each viewing.

Was it wise to cast a relatively unknown actor as Henry “Hank” Rearden?  Is Grant  Bowler’s performance charismatic enough to endear viewers to his character’s potent philosophies?  Box office receipts aside, that may be the best indicator of this film’s worth.

(Rated PG-13:  A few swear words and two brief, non-explicit sex scenes.)

Screenplay:  Brian Patrick O’Toole, John Aglialoro

Produced by:  Harmon Kaslow, John Aglialoro

Director:  Paul Johansson

Casting:  Ronnie Yeskel, Sharon Howard-Field

Costume Designer:  Jennifer Soulages

(Published by C.E. Chambers May 2011)

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