Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

This is a review of the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. It will begin with a more "standard" movie review which will not contain too many spoilers (although if you are reading this blog you ought to have read the book, like, decades ago) and will then look at the politics of the movie in depth (with spoilers).

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1
Having spent, literally, decades in 'development hell' and, over the years, having attracted some big-name actors, Ayn Rand's seminal 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 (the first part of an intended trilogy) came to the theaters in 2010. It was pretty much a private endeavor by John Agliaoro and certainly counted as a "labor of love."

This alone--the tricky development--the 'labor of love'--and the fact that the director (Paul Johansson--who has done a good deal of television but few movies) was brought in 9 days before shooting--should make anyone who loved the book (and there are legions) bloods run cold. I'm here to tell you you shouldn't be afraid: if you loved the book, in my opinion, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 isn't good. It's great.

The story takes place in 2016 where--to suit the book--rail transport has replaced personal cars due to 30-dollar a gallon gas and trouble in the middle east. America (and the world) is in the grip of a depression and the political class is helpless, hapless, and rich. Also rich are a group of captains of industry notably Dagny Taggart (the star: Taylor Schiling), who runs Taggart Transcontinental (railways)--one of the last big railways, and Heanry Rearden (Grant Bowler, whose key to the character is being able to smile affably while people are horrible to him) who runs several major industries including Rearden Steel.

The story takes off when Dagny, the only competent executive, takes it on herself (and her assistant, played with understated charisma by Edi Gathegi) to drive the company out of complacent decline (or sudden death). Her struggle to make the family enterprise profitable again runs up against Washington and other crony-capitalists who are more interested in feeding off tax dollars and using legal maneuvers to stifle competition than any kind of free market.

Meanwhile, in the background, other successful entrepreneurs are ... vanishing. A shadowy figure in a trench-coat approaches them with an offer we don't quite get to hear--and then they're gone.

The movie, like the book, is a expository piece on the philosophy of Objectivism--Ayn Rand's creation--which, economically, at least, is not all that dissimilar to Libertarianism. It holds the self as supreme and rejects any kind of forced giving and the concept of "the greater good." To make a movie out of this, let alone a good one, is a difficult almost Sisyphean undertaking--and, indeed, that rock rolled back down for decades before this came out.

And it flopped. Apparently we're going to get Part II--for which I am grateful--but while I know no one involved I have to think this was a really, really painful endeavor. Fortunately Objectivism is  fine with you struggling and suffering for what you believe (amusingly, a batch of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs had to be recalled because the boilerplate on the back described it as a story of 'self-sacrifice' which is Objectivist Kryptionite!).

It was good. How good was it? I watched people sit around at cocktail hour over and over (a lot of deals get done and conversations happen over drinks) and liked it. No one in the movie is a big name--but all of them have the requisite charisma. Even better, while I am not an Objectivist, these are people you can root for whatever you believe: you have to accept that the world is what it appears to be--a kleptocratic government run by cowards who use their power to abate their incompetence--but once you do (and you bought Star Wars, didn't you? Space ships making fighter-plane sounds in space as they buzz by) it all works.

I'm sure there are people who watched it seething because of the philosophy in it--and because some of their sacred cows were getting butchered--but the movie itself takes place in a bubble. It takes place in the Objectiv-verse and while we can argue if that's the real world or not, for 97 minutes you get to visit and you don't have to worry about that if you don't want to.

Go buy it. In fact, use that link right at the top. You won't be sorry!

The Politics 

Objectivist philosophy has one of the same problems all governing philosophies do: you can never implement "an idea"--you have to implement a program--and once you do it becomes impure. Thus, communism cannot fail--it can only be failed. Ask an Objectivist if theirs would be a perfect world and the answer is always "yes--if you do it right." As most of us have to live in the real world the question should not be what are the goals--but what are the results.

In any event: one cannot discuss Objectivism with an Objectivist without having done all the research--done all the reading--so I'm not going to try.

I'm simply going to note that while I find some of the lighter versions of Objectivism to be reasonable, I think the underpinnings of it are based on some fairly nasty emotions and while Gordon Gecko made a hell of a Greed-is-good speech which sounded defensible he was still the villain in that movie. So keep that in mind.

The Politics
Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is a movie you should go and get and watch with your friends if you have even one iota of sympathy for the Tea Party. Not only is it a good movie but it hits--with deft skill--every talking point you could ask for.

Anthropogenic Global Warming  (the theory that mankind is causing global climate change) is addressed in metaphor when the State Science Institute issues its (fraudulent) report on the new Rearden Metal declaring it unsafe or else the scientists will all lose their livelihoods!

Rich (Red) States are forced to pay for (poor) progressive states by new bills crammed through congress.

We get to see plucky business men (and women) crushed under the heal of over-regulation by "well meaning" social engineers and bureaucrats.

A union rep tries to muscle Dagny and is unceremoniously upbraided and thrown out of her office!

The Heroes
There are several heroes in the movie and they are all well drawn in the ideological mold. Consider that Dagny, seeing her whole livelihood crumble on TV makes sure to cover her tab before running out of diner. Same with the shadowy figure (John Galt) who has to chase down his quarry. These folks never stiff anyone on the check.

After a massive business success, a huge meal, and a night of drinking, super-business man Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) doesn't excuse himself by saying the hour is late and he has to go to bed--no: the hour is late and the markets are open in Asia. Sleep is for the weak!

If it's a bit over the top, I found that the emphasis on casting and performance was where it needed to be: keeping these people likable. You never see Dagny do the calculation of personal risk before deciding to throw a life-preserver to a drowning man. When Rearden is harassed by his sycophant family and wife (all of whom clearly despise him) he holds up with herculean good humor (he's not a full Objectivist, you see, so he still thinks taking care of the weak is alright even when we can clearly see he should ditch them).

The Train and Steel
The images during the climatic John Galt rail-way run and the smelting of the new wonder-metal are iconic and directly out of political campaign ads. We see the train--moving faster than a bullet train--roar through the unspoiled wilderness of Real America (with, yes, amber waves of grain and some maybe purpleish mountains in the background). When the metal is poured it glows and sparks in the way that we've learned means "heavy industry" and "manufacturing"--which is what made America great.

Trains are out of favor now but the movie was right to bring them back. However unlikely it is intellectually trains are still metaphors for strength (there's a reason Superman was 'stronger than a locomotive,' of course) and the movie works with that.

I imagine in Part II--should they not drop the ball--we will see something stand in for Obmacare and maybe non-recess recess appointments? I'd like to see their take on it (although in the Atlas-verse I think almost all politicians are corrupt so there should be no place for an Obama-like tyrant to push things past a plucky rebellious congress--but maybe they can do something with that).

I found the politicians and their cronies credible. A step away from cackling evil but well into, well, self-interest: these guys could use a little bit of the "greater good."

The website for Part 2 doesn't have much--but it says it'll be out in the fall and I've read it'll be out around the time for the nominations. If you are a Republican you might consider a small donation if you can find a way to donate--it'll be a good answer to Game Change and it might help Part III get made. I'm not an Ayn Rand fan--but I think the book deserves all three parts (although I also think The Golden Compass deserved the other two books so take my opinion for what it is). At any rate, I'm looking forward to it.

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