17 Apr 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

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Hank and Dagny ride in the engine on the first train run on the newly constructed John Galt Line.

Filming a classic novel with an intense following inevitably presents a formidable challenge. The mind’s eye of every reader has formed its own images of the key characters. Its readers will have read and re-read it again and again, and will remember the plot in intimate detail and will feel ill-used if any key scene, important event, or powerful line of dialogue should be omitted.

For an old-time right-wing Rand aficionado like myself, attending the film version of Atlas Shrugged in 2011 combined the sensation of attending church services on Christmas Eve with dropping by the kind of in-group convention one might attend in one’s capacity as a Science Fiction reader or war gamer, to take part in an event simultaneously providing the powerful and intense gratification of witnessing the cultural apotheosis of a book one deeply loves while also keeping one on the edge of one’s seat in suspense over the quality and accuracy of the re-creation.

Yesterday, we defied torrential rainstorms and drove over 40 miles into (what is referred to out here as) “occupied Virginia,” the New Jersey-like suburbs of the District, to a multiplex theater in Fairfax to see the film version of Atlas Shrugged on its second day.

The first issue, in the case of this kind of film, is inevitably casting. The two key roles in the first portion of Atlas Shrugged are Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon, and in both cases I think the casting choices were superb.

Ayn Rand would have loved, one imagines, the choice of the blonde, angular, and intense Taylor Schilling for Dagny. Schilling is along the lines of a younger, American version of Kristin Scott-Thomas: beautiful in a decidedly challenging, aristocratic, and intelligent manner. I thought she portrayed Dagny Taggart’s Ãœber-female combination of polished glamour and hoydenish tomboy indifference impeccably.

I have always had personal difficulties with picturing, or empathizing very successfully with, the great businessman Hank Reardon. Grant Bowler’s performance added the perfect note of ironic contempt in his interactions with the numerous villains surrounding him, which made the character work and come alive for me.

Michael Marsden’s James Taggart seemed perhaps a bit too young, and the choice of Iranian Navid Negahban for the nefarious Dr. Robert Stadler seemed peculiar, but in general the character actors playing the Rand villains did a bang up job. Michael Lerner’s Wesley Mouch and Armin Shimerman’s Dr. Potter were particularly fine.

The writer and production team all deserve a gold lighter and a life-time supply of dollar-sign cigarettes for plot accuracy and ideological fidelity. I was mentally comparing how faithful they were to the original here with Peter Jackson & company in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who felt no diffidence in “improving” on Tolkien with a less upright and chivalrous Faramir, a crude and slobbering Denethor, an extra near-death experience for Aragorn, and so on.

Working on an extremely limited independent production budget (rumored to have been as little as $7 million, the kind of money it takes to make a television documentary), Paul Johansson did a remarkable job. Hostile mainstream media critics were quick to notice, and snark over, the absence of James Cameron-level production values and a big name cast; but, let’s face it, there is an awfully big difference in what you can do with $200 million in 1997 and what you do with $7 million in 2010. I’d say that Johansson and company turned in results that were downright miraculous considering the limitations of their budget.

Ayn Rand directly challenged the established consensus of values of modern society, and struck at the heart of the ruling political ideologies of her time and ours. Naturally, the media establishment has always treated her work with hostility. 2011 has not been very different from 1957 in that respect.

Roger Ebert has not read the book, and obviously wouldn’t like if if he did.

I am faced with this movie, the most anticlimactic non-event since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault. I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it. For the rest of us, it involves a series of business meetings in luxurious retro leather-and-brass board rooms and offices, and restaurants and bedrooms that look borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as the Robber Baron Arms.

During these meetings, everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs. There are conversations in English after which I sometimes found myself asking, “What did they just say?” The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily. Much of the excitement centers on the tensile strength of steel.

Maureen Dowd trashed the film for not having A-list stars, without even bothering to pretend to have seen it.

Tea Party groups are helping to market part one of a low-budget film version of “Atlas Shrugged,” with no stars and none of the campy panache of the Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal movie of “The Fountainhead.” “Atlas Shrugged” aptly opened on Tax Day, getting a rave from Sean Hannity, who said it wouldn’t have been released “had Hollywood liberals gotten their way,” and a dismissive shrug from most critics, even conservatives.

Personally, I would take Taylor Schilling over Angelina Jolie for Dagny any day. Brad Pitt ought to see if he can’t talk to the producers about trying out for the role of Ragnar Danneskjöld in Part 3.

Meanwhile, on Rotten Tomatoes, polling is currently running 85% to 10% in favor, an extremely positive rating.

Anthony Kaufman, in the Wall Street Journal, spoke to Executive Producer Harmon Kaslow, who thinks that the opinion of MSM critics will not prevent the film from making its own way.

Despite the dreadful weather, the new-fangled stadium theater was nearly full, and the audience applauded vigorously at the film’s close.

We expected that the critics would have a fear of embracing this film,” says Kaslow. “We knew that there was a substantial likelihood that they would not view the film as to whether we got the message right, but would look at it comparing it to what Hollywood would have done. I don’t think our audience is persuaded at all by those reviews.”

“It’s somewhat analogous to the family-based film market,” he continues. “Most family based films are not subject to review, because they know that that audience is all about the message. And if the message is right, they’ll give you a hall pass if the production values weren’t as high. And if we get criticized for the dialogue, most of it has been taken right out of the book. So, in a sense, they’re criticizing the literary nature of the work.”

Reason has a celebratory opening day article and link collection.

2 Feedbacks on "Atlas Shrugged, Part 1"

Gary Hatch

I am neither a Republican, Tea Party Promoter or even an Objectivist. So it may come as a surprise that I found your review the most spot on thus far. I too thought the value on screen was a miracle given the budget and that the casting was inspired. So as a lefty who still enjoys a good debate, and as a long time Ayn Rand reader; I expect that the overall effect of the negative reviews on the movie will be similar to those in 1957 for the book. And we saw how that turned out.

As to the “Tea Party” involvement, I think that that is a good thing. Perhaps some members of the Party will actually start thinking about Rand’s full message, and not just the slogan-bullet points. Government’s job is to keep all thumbs off the scale, including its own. No bid contracts with Haliburton are no less onerous than support of the NEA, and in terms of actual $$$$ much more harmful to the economy. Rand transended Right or Left…Ayn is Ayn!


Thanks for the kind words.


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