Studio:Twentieth Century Fox Year: 2011 Cast: Taylor Schilling, Edi Gathegi, Geoff Pierson, Paul Johansson, Patrick Fischler, Michael O'Keefe, Matthew Marsden, Armin Shimerman, Michael Lerner, Grant Bowler, Jon Polito, Jsu Garcia, Christina Pickles, Navid Negahban Director: Paul Johansson Release Date: November 08, 2011 Rating: PG-13 for for some sexuality Run Time: 01h:37m:00s Genre(s): mystery, drama
“Let’s just say it is to give you the words you will need for the time you will need them.” - Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia)
You have demanded it and now here it is. The screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, or at least Part One on DVD. Yeah, I know you had good reason to avoid it in the theater, but now you can get your intellectual on in a big way. Well, maybe a little way. It's a good chance to get a "light on the sauce" taste of what the big meal is all about. Whether there is a there there is strictly a matter of taste.
Movie Grade: B-
DVD Grade: C-
I wish I could say that I went back and re-read Atlas Shrugged before I watched this movie and then wrote this review, but nope, didn't happen. I remember at one point in the way back, I was studying philosophies of many stripes and, like many students, found interest in the writings of Ayn Rand. I read her play, Night of January 16th, and the novella Anthem and several essays about Objectivism, as well as the novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The fiction was weirdly compelling, baroque and labyrinthine but the straightforward philosophy was "eh." She supported a severely elitist, radical egoism that emphasized the individual over any type of community altruism. As a refugee of Communism, she was diametrically opposed to collectivism and found some support in the era of anti-Communism in the United States. Academic philosophical circles generally ignored or rejected (or ridiculed) her system, yet she maintains a popular following among the libertarian circles that are desperate for some kind of intellectual explication of their ideals. I can't help but think that I was among many who fell back in disbelief and shock to find that the actual philosophies of Ayn Rand had actually contributed to the actual economic theories of our country through the efforts of her actual student, Alan Greenspan. Yeah, that Alan Greenspan - longtime Federal Reserve Chairman.
Rand is a pro-choice atheist, yet has influenced conservative wings of the Republican Party and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called her "novelist laureate" of the Reagan era. The late-2000s financial crisis also created renewed interest in her works, especially Atlas Shrugged, which some saw as foreshadowing the crisis, and opinion articles compared real-world events with the plot of the novel. Atlas Shrugged icon John Galt actually made some appearances on signs at so-called "Tea Party" rallies. Conservative pundits Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have offered high praise of the book on their respective radio and television programs. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has cited Atlas Shrugged as among his favorite novels. Sales of the book have soared to over 500,000 copies sold in 2009, seemingly a ready-made audience for a movie version indeed. Of course, a significant percentage of those who bought the book (or had it "shudder" gifted) wouldl not be in the audience of the film due to either their bad experience with starting the book or the fact that they never read it at all.
There is a serious "you have got to be shitting me" factor to all this.
Now comes a movie version, Part 1, of a novel that many thought could never be filmed and some hoped never would be. Many have tried to bring the long, long novel to the big screen or television in a mini-series. Script approval by Rand when she was alive and her heirs after her death and/or ironically business fluctuations have derailed every attempt until now. In 2010, Brian Patrick O'Toole and principal investor John Aglialoro wrote a screenplay and last minute replacement director Paul Johansson helmed the production that starred a cinema newcomer Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and relatively unknown New Zealander Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden.
By all measurements the film was a flop at the box office and generally received negative reviews. Upon the DVD release, product had to be recalled because a copy writer and editor who was not familiar with the philosophy of the source created the slip sheet blurb referring to "Ayn Rand's timeless novel of courage and self-sacrifice". Ouch. I have that version of the case and the blurb closes with "rugged individualists whose bold ideas may have the power to spark a revolution and reclaime the American Dream." Where have I heard that before? Having actually read Atlas Shrugged, there is a bit of trepidation at sitting down to watch a film version but this is ameliorated slightly by the fact that it is only Part 1 and the running time is 97 minutes.
Atlas Shrugged Part 1 the faux (and already quite out-of-date) newsreel type opening to establish the travails of the times that Atlas resides in we meet hour heroine Dagny Taggart. One of the most compelling pleasures of Ayn Rand's book is her female characters and Dagny is quintessential. Smart, sexy and selfish, whe epitomizes the idealized vision of modern womanhood that Ayn Rand imagined. It is amazing that such a character was incredibly radical in the 1950s and is still unique today. We had a discussion about the state of women's rights in my house the other day and I pointed out that women had not really come that far. Their biggest problem was that they had come from so far behind. I mean look at the fact that women have not had the vote for me than a century! Even though women are at the height of their political power, there are few women in high level business positions, few in Congress or other parts of the political arena.
The smug self-satisfied attitude of the characters like Hank Rearden, that self-loving, self-righteous, know-all-the answers and have-the-inside-knowledge that is a product of their own greatness is quite endearing. These are the boobs who love a woman like Dagny and then ask her when she is going to give up her silly little job and start birthing those babies. Of course, in this day and age, where women can have it all, she will keep her silly little job and birth those babies right into the hands of a Salvadoran nanny and an exclusive preschool - while still being paid less than a man in an equivalent job.
The acting is pretty good overall. I enjoyed the fresh-faced intensity of Taylor Schilling as Dagny and Grant Bowler as Hank was a decent mixture of arrogance and self-love. It was fun seeing the faces pop up every now and then, like Monica's mom Christina Pickles as Hank's mother and the Dad from Unhappily Ever After, Geoff Pierson, as the first executive to disappear, Midas Mulligan. (I might change my name to that!) Phil from the Dharma Initiative, Patrick Fischler as the slimy Paul Larkin and Michael O'Keefe, the dude from Caddyshack as Hugh Akston in a hilarious scene. Jon Polito, who was a favorite character in the old Homicide TV series, as Orren Boyle and Armin Shimerman, a.k.a Quark and Stan the Caddy, in as Dr. Potter.
Early on we get a weird mixture of futuristic and a sort of art-deco-baroque atmosphere exemplified by the images of trains. Yes, I know trains are still around and are still an important part of our transportation infrastructure, but the are certainly not what they were 60 years ago. It was a tough call to make the trains central to the story of Atlas Shrugged told in 2011, but the writers did a nice job of creating a context and a reason while staying very true to the essence of the novel. The final choice was simple, Atlas Shrugged would not be the same without the trains. It's as simple as that. In the short documentary, Road To Atlas Shrugged, the producer Agliaro makes the comment that if Atlas is made in the future, the transportation will be something else more appropriate to the time, because Rand always maintained that the story takes place the day after tomorrow. But the next version of Atlas will be a period piece describing an alternate future, because it must have those trains. You would think that a thinker like Rand would have picked up a newspaper and noted the creation of the Interstate Highway system or seen the emergence of air travel as the dominant mode of mass people moving. But would Taggart Transcontinental been as romantic as a trucking firm? But still, the true fact remains that trains form an absolutely crucial arm of our infrastructure even today even though for freight, rail comes in third behind Sea and Road. Maybe Ragnar the Pirate will have more to say in Part 2.
In fact, I am sure that many of the tens of thousands who have purchased and purportedly read Atlas Shrugged the novel will actually be surprised to find out how the rest of the book plays out in the upcoming parts of Atlas Shrugged, the movie, since they probably put it down about a third of the way in. There was always Cliff Notes to save undergrads and pseudo-intellectuals back in the day and, of course, nowadays we have Wikipedia for that crowd, which not only provides a bulletpointed history of the novel, but also context, synopsis, summary and reception! Probably written by a true believer. On top of that, there are links to pages and pages of explication of Objectivism, not to mention peeks behind the scenes of how all that came about.The infighting of the Objectivist movement is the stuff that might make a good movie.
The screen writers did a fine job of minimizing the preachy bombast of Rand and yet maintain a nice flavor. There is a satirical quality in Rand's writing that usually goes - "zing!" - right over the head of the true believer. Any fervent reader of Atlas Shrugged should be perfectly satisfied with what the creative team of this production has wrought with their favorite novel. The beauty of it is that one can use this venue to relive the pleasures of Rand again and again without having to re-read the book. The production is impressively and attractively mounted with sets that cunning evoke the era and stylings of that other Rand icon Howard Roark. Fortunately the eye candy of the sets and the action of the trains makes up a little for the typical problem of a philosophical novel turned into a movie. In the novel, we can read what the characters are thinking and have long "streams-of-consciousness" exploration of their feelings and motivations. On the screen we are reduced to a twitch of a cheek or a narrowing of eyes. The superficiality of the cinema is never more profound than when it attempting to portray talky ideas as pictures. Cinema is at its best in giving the half-baked a feeling of depth and realization. A shot of a sandwich and the a shot of a face and we believe the face shows hunger. A shot of something disgusting and then a shot of the same face and we see that face as showing disgust. I always enjoy reading about the transition from silent films to talkies as the proponents of the silents just did not believe that focusing the camera on some one's face while they were talking was cinema. The hardest part of sitting through Stanley Kubrick's version of Vladmir Nabakov's Lolita is the sense of being talked to death by the characters. One of the joys of his 2001: A Space Odyssey is the amount of thought that was portrayed in so many scenes that had no dialogue.
Ayn Rand is the true philosopher of what has come to be known as the 1%. Those are people at the top of the food chain who really go their more through the fact that they inherited what they got from someone who was willing to lie, cheat, fight or kill for it. The inheritors are known more for their ability to lie, cheat, fight or kill to hold on to it. She attempts to prove that without the magic and wonder of these creators, these producers; then the 99% would be lost and collapse into some kind of chaos. It is hard to begin attacking such a premise, there are simply too many flaws. It is like attacking the arguments of Republican presidential candidates as they flail around in debates leading up to 2012 primaries. One is just agog! The mysterious John Galt becomes some kind of cartoon-ish Nietzschean superman withholding his graces from the world that doesn't appreciate the wonder of his greatness. It feeds into itself in a love snake eating its own tail kind of way that generally serves for good entertainment or, at the least, good satire. Sometimes Rand reads as a student exercise of taking the aphorisms of Nietzsche in Beyond Good And Evil and write a story taking them into real life to most absurd possible length. The enemy is the collective and their failure is sacrifice. The wormy way the antagonists are embodied by Dagny's brother, Readen's wife, her friends, and the Washington elite are the most explicit propagandistic elements of the story. The fact that only rational self-interest and greed can save the world from these people is self-evident. Michael Douglas has indicated in interviews that he is always shocked when people don't seem to realized that is "Greed is good" Gordon Gekko character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street was the villain. It will be interesting to see if any "Occupy" imagery make it into Parts 2 And 3 of Atlas, if they ever get made. One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would have made of those TARP bailouts and they supermen who took them. One is reminded of the hypocrisy of the so-called "Tea Party" activists as the quintessential demonstration of the idea of rational self-interest.
Film versions of cult books or great novels can be a dodgy proposition. The proponents often get lost in proselytizing of their own affection for the item and lose the entertainment value along the way. King Of Kings? The Bible? Book Of Mormon? Battlefield Earth? The obsessive nature of the drive to get it done means that only the most dedicated will succeed. Another snake eating itself. There has to be some reason why no one has ever managed a version of Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land on the big screen. J.D. Salinger himself forbade the attempt to adapt The Catcher in the Rye, at least until after he was dead because he could not endure the thought of the result. For myself, I can still hold out for Guillermo Del Toro's version of The Teachings of Don Juan with Javier Bardem as Carlos Castaneda and Cheech Marin as the old sorcerer.
The dual-layer DVD looked good with a very crisp video transfer. The sound quality was sufficient and came in Dolby 5.1. It's close captioned and includes English and Spanish subtitles. I was surprised by the lack of extras, especially in releasing a DVD of a film based on a big novel. Where's my Ayn Rand puff piece? Where's my screenplay to read so I know how important the words are? Where indeed!
Special Features: Road To Atlas Shrugged - Nice interview with producer John Aglialoro. He highlights some of the difficulties in bringing the novel to the screen. He points out that he encountered surprising resistance to the philosophical underpinnings of the story. I am not sure if he ever found some of the resistance to adapting the long, long novel to the fear that it might be boring as hell as a movie.
I Am John Galt - This is an unfortunate extra that began as a marketing device. People where to post videos of themselves online where they said the phrase, "I am John Galt." I applaud the maketeer who came up with it and curse them for the fact that I had to look at it. After a certain amount of time one could coalesce in one's mind the pasty faced sort of doofus that is John Galt.
The John Galt Theme - music with scenes from movie. Meaningless but still somewhat enjoyable. I kind of liked the theme music by Elia Cmiral.
The disc also carries a filmmaker's commentary with John Aglialoro, Brian Patrick O'Toole and Harmon Kaslow - A pretty fair job of adding interest to the film by talking about the making of the film rather than describing what we are seeing on the screen. You know?