The two questions I have been hearing from my libertarian friends all week are these: Have you seen the new Atlas Shrugged? Is it any good?
My answers are Yes! And Ye-es.
I was invited to attend a posh private screening with the producers in Manhattan two days before the official opening. David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society (neé the Institute for Objectivist Studies) and script consultant on the film, introduced the screening to a friendly audience of Rand enthusiasts. Esai Morales, who plays Francisco d’Anconia to perfection, also attended. It was a festive event honoring the Herculean efforts of producer John Aglialoro to bring this book to the screen.
As the lights dimmed and the film began, my biggest concern was whether the film could stand on its own merits, despite its being the middle chapter of a three-part story. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the entire cast and director were changed from Part I, making it virtually impossible to use flashbacks for exposition.
I am happy to report that it does indeed work as a standalone film. Three main subplots drive this episode: Dagny Taggart’s quest to uncover the secret of a mysterious engine that could solve the world’s energy crisis; the government’s enactment of “Directive 10-289,” which freezes all employment, wages, and even personal spending at the previous year’s rate, thus making it illegal for anyone to quit, retire, be fired, be promoted, earn less, earn more, or even spend less or more than in the previous year; and the inexplicable, almost spiritual, disappearance of the world’s brightest and most creative thinkers at the hands of a mysterious stranger.
I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it.
Rand purists will be relieved to hear that the plot remains faithful to the original (almost to a fault). Some lines of dialogue have been inserted intact from the novel, and even the changes made in the name of streamlining remain true to Rand’s intent. Hank Rearden’s speech in front of Congress, in which he defends (or, rather, refuses to defend) his right to determine who will buy the metal he produces, is powerful and thrilling. It should resonate even with viewers who have never heard of Ayn Rand.
A few welcome adjustments have been made in the casting to acknowledge 21st-century racial integration, without drawing special attention to race. Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones), for example, is black, but the film places no greater significance on the fact than if he were blonde or brunette. He just is.
Similar updating of the story itself would make this film more accessible to non-Randians. Yes, Ayn Rand loved trains. Without trains, Atlas Shrugged would not be Atlas Shrugged. And yet, for audiences who don’t care one whit about the author of the foundational work, a 21st-century setting in which trains are the primary mode of transportation simply doesn’t make sense. The film’s producers attempt to explain this with a note in the opening credits saying that in the future, trains have become the most economical form of travel, but come on. No one is going to buy that. Train travel is luxurious and impractical, especially in a country as vast as the United States. Cars and planes can go almost anywhere; trains are limited to where the tracks can take them. It’s especially laughable when Dagny travels by herself to Colorado in her private rail car. How could it possibly be more economical for one person to take a train than a car?
Modern audiences will also have a hard time believing that a single man — such as Rearden (Jason Beghe), Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), and Francisco d’Anconia, could control the entire markets in metal, shale oil, coal, and copper respectively. I think my friends and colleagues, the ones I would like to convince by inviting them to see a film like this, would be able to relate to the story more if the heroes were adapted so as to represent smaller, more sympathetic businesses. I would love to see a film inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not wedded to it. Such a film would be true to the purpose of the book, but would not be held back by the setting and technology of 60 years ago. Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.
Coincidentally, I happened to see Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People on Broadway the day after I saw Atlas Shrugged II. Several critics have complained about how the language of this classic play has been updated to modern vernacular for this production. I disagreed. Ibsen was a realist. He rejected the larger-than-life heroes and cosmic issues of classic drama to write about everyday people experiencing everyday conflicts. His protagonists spoke in current language about current issues. If he were writing today, he would be using today’s idioms and swear words. So while director Doug Hughes’ version is not true to the language of Ibsen’s play, it is true to the spirit and intent of Ibsen’s play. The result is fast-paced, tense, and very modern.
So YES! I have seen the new film, and I had a great time. And ye-es, it is good, but with some caveats. The story stands on its own. The main points about the sovereignty of the individual are strong and intact. It injects some delicious ironic humor, such as the placard held by a picketer that says, “We are the 99.98 percent!” John Galt is both mysterious and inspiriting — I can’t wait to see what D.B. Sweeney does with the role in the final installment. Exposition is handled deftly, using dialogue to bridge the gaps between Part I and Part II.
But I’m still not pleased with the casting. Diedrich Bader, best known for portraying intellectually challenged characters like Oswald on “The Drew Carey Show,” Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies (1993), and Rex Kwon Do in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), draws laughter when he first appears as Quentin Daniels, the scientist working to unlock the secret of the engine. Similarly, Teller (the silent half of Penn and Teller) creates a stir with his small speaking role as Laughlin. Both acquit themselves well as dramatic actors, but they create a distraction when they appear onscreen, pulling audiences out of the scene.
Rand set her novel in a dystopian near future; it is disconcerting to find it mired in the technology of the past.
Far from being cool and sophisticated, the new Dagny (Samantha Mathis) is frumpy, and she lacks chemistry with Rearden. Nor is there any chemistry between Dagny’s brother James (Patrick Fabian) and his new wife Cheryl (Larisa Oleynik), the shopgirl with whom he falls in love, despite their social differences. In fact, none of the characters is particularly passionate, with the exception of Francisco, who moves and speaks with a natural intimacy, and Galt, who manages to inject more charisma and personality with his unseen, offstage voice than Dagny is able to create with all her screen time. Not surprisingly, Francisco and Galt are brought to life by the most seasoned actors of the crew, and it shows.
Despite these shortcomings, Atlas Shrugged II is an admirable work, made more difficult by the rigorous expectations of Rand’s hard-to-please fans. The original score by Chris Bacon is strong, and the special effects are impressive. I applaud the efforts of the producers and all those responsible for the script.