When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
ATLAS SHRUGGED: Part 1 (2011)


I have to confess that I never read Ayn Rand’s epic tome on selfishness:  I’m a glacially-slow reader, so a commitment to wading through a 1,000+ page book (whose prose style has been given just qualified praise by even her most devout acolytes) would last longer than some of my live-in relationships and sure to be just as rife with anguish.

The film inhabits a futuristic world where CEOs take intercity trains to attend high-power business meetings (and buy newspapers on arrival at their destinations!), where millionaire trophy wives wear gowns that drape on their bodies like off-the-rack Macy’s fare and glisten with threads of petroleum byproducts, and every well-heeled New Yorker seems to enjoy drinking and dining at sparsely populated restaurants and bars. 

Now, I’ve heard the backstory of how an investor’s option on the movie rights was about to revert to the Rand Estate, so this film was rushed into production.  Yet the movie’s situational incongruities and visual shortcuts cannot totally be blamed on a looming deadline.  Its loopy, dissonant gaps also mirror the underlying dysfunction in ATLAS SHRUGGED‘s thesis. 

The money shot, as far the movie goes in covering the book’s storyline, is when Dagny’s train glides over Hank’s sturdy bridge that gaps a yawning Western chasm (better that than a train going through a tunnel…actually that happens later in the night when Dagny and Hank are alone after a few glasses of champagne).  There’s much cinematic hullabaloo over Dagny and Hank’s heroism in guiding her train over the bridge made from Hank’s freshly-engineered steel, as if it were a ferociously individualistic act, yet the train departed and arrived at municipal train stations that were built and maintained by collectivist city governments, the land on which Hank Rearden’s steel rails are laid was purchased by a government entity from private individuals via Eminent Domain for a train right-of-way, and the reason no freight train had a head-on collision with Dagny’s was due to regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration.  They celebrate their ‘triumph’ by drinking champagne bottled and aged by unionized French vineyard workers and dining on food that (unless grown on a nearby farm) had been Federally inspected for safety.

[As a side note, Dagny’s train looks conspicuously like the ‘socialist’ ICE trains of Europe, implemented and managed by the collaborative governments of Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland.]

After Hank and Dagny’s evening of passionless sex (as one must assume from what’s shown onscreen, and as stated in quotes from the novel describing their affair as more of a spiritual bond…at least ‘spiritual’ as defined by an atheist), they load up a car and depart on a road trip (traveling on government-financed highways, since they didn’t hammer out their own jetpaks for the trek).

It’s these gaping holes that seem to be found in not only this movie and (I suppose) book, but in almost everything Rand-related.  (Just as the 1998 Oscar®-nominated documentary on Ayn Rand frequently referred to her hero-worship of Cecil B. DeMille yet never addressed how the materialist, atheist Rand dealt with DeMille’s devotion not only to traditional religious beliefs but also to occultism such as reincarnation.)  It’s this turning of a blind eye to evidence and/or facts that makes ATLAS SHRUGGED come off less as a philosophic statement than an infantilized wish fullment, suckling its audience in the same way certain right-wing media outlets don’t report facts but instead tell its viewers what they want to hear and believe.

ATLAS SHRUGGED has a bland visual language that says little.

And Wish Fulfillment is a good moniker for the way the film is crafted, since the movie preaches to the choir, posing and skimming while doing nothing to persuade or convince.  Lots of the basics of film language (lighting to convey interior psychology, color and lens choice to define character, etc.) are missing, while almost every shorthand cliché (pushing along the story by inserting badly simulated TV news stories; dimensionless caricatures substituting for personality development; badly placed movie extras who constantly remind you they’re merely window-dressing) relentlessly rears its ugly head.  The amateur tropes of director Paul Johansson just didn’t work (or perhaps he was unable to work beyond them, unable to develop ideas due to a combination of time constraints and inexperience) and evidently he couldn’t get his head around the fact that these shenanigans in movies never come across as genuine.  But this is what rookies do under stress:  they ape what they’ve seen without examining for appropriate implementation.  (The movie’s only visually interesting moments are the shots of leading man Grant Bowler’s muscular back, which looks as if it emerged from a Victor Skrebneski photo.)

Arch-Individualists Hank and Dagny, on their road trip via a union-built car over government-owned highways, come across a kinetic energy doohickey they'd heard about.

And then of course there’s the fact that this whole movie centers on trains!!  Montages of trains coming and going which I assume are metaphors for the individualist dynamism of Hank and Dagny, yet come across as passionless as their copulations (and the occasional glimpse of rust on some of the railroad equipment gives good arguments for car and plane travel).

Yet the prime revelation for me was how so much of the Ayn Rand rhetoric in this movie is identical in use to that of religious fundamentalism:  that narcotic-like high some get by saying, “Someday you’ll find yourselves standing in rubble and I’ll be there saying, ‘I told you so.'”  You see this talk in everything from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to precious metal investor newsletters, where the queasiness of a fluctuating reality generates needs for fabricating a future of secure superiority.  Also, ATLAS SHRUGGED exists in a world of perceived occult forces and demons, which again ties it to fundamentalism of all sects.

That’s the inner illumination I came away from with this movie, which was not its creators’ intention.  That’s what happens when a movie has no aesthetic or cognitive rushes:  you sit there in the dark and get rational.

As an expat in China, I must disclose that, in the true spirit of Free Market Capitalism, the DVD viewed for this review of ATLAS SHRUGGED was a pirated one, purchased at a Chinese DVD store; no royalties were paid into the Estate of Ayn Rand.  The restrictive legal instruments on intellectual property, controlled by the interference of Western governments, were disregarded by the unknown individual or individuals who manufactured the DVD.  Since only members of the Communist Party are allowed to start businesses in the People’s Republic, the financial proceeds of the disc’s purchase went directly into the pockets of a Brave Entrepreneur who is — literally — a card-carrying Communist.  I assume this disclosure pleases the admirers of Ayn Rand.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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6 Comments to “ATLAS SHRUGGED: Part 1 (2011)”

  1. Ralph Benner says:

    You can’t comment on one without commenting on all three:

    Over at Huffington Post, a member calling himself Squeezed wrote the following about the rush of GOPers like Paul Ryan to embrace Randism as the answer to our economic woes: “These conservatives need to get off their Ayn Rand bandwagon. There were no children in Rand’s books. No elderly, no disabled, no poor and no veterans. In Rand’s world, there were no recessions¬, no wars, no disease, no ignorance, and no poverty. In other words, Rand was a victim of her own fevered imagination.” Viewing “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1,” the first thing the audience notices is how the movie makers include the unemployed and the homeless in the opening minutes, as if they too might have read Squeezed’s concise slam and decided to defuse the potential criticism. For the record, the movie was already nearing the end of its theatrical run when the comments appeared but certainly the makers perceived the novelist’s lack of acknowledging capitalism’s collateral damage when it moves into downer mode. In the books “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” Rand pits the super-charged defenders of self and creators against the greedy parasites that are big government and corporate conformity. The joke of “Atlas Shrugged” is that all the conspiracies against individualism Rand rages about become a single conspiracy to form her one big idea — that John Galt plots to stop the machinery of world commerce to force a return to the use of “man’s mind” to pooh-pooh social morality (culprits like religion, regulations and welfare). Galt’s nearly 56 page rant is Rand attempting to refine her philosophy of self-serving as an anti-Communism/anti-God manifesto; it’s the loftiest extension imaginable of Howard Roark’s defense but much more rigged in that Rand allows Galt to control the world’s radio waves and pontificate as if he’s the pope exercising infallibility. The climatic propaganda is not in the 2011 movie, of course — Galt’s orgasmic complaining will be seen in part three “AS: Who is John Galt?” — but as a miniseries it might have. Ten to twenty million was spent to make the first part which is, essentially, a 96 minute trailer. Compare its budget to the $45 million effectively spent to make Showtime’s “The Borgias” and you understand the wrongheadedness of elevating the novel beyond the more efficacious conveyance of television. And, supporting the argument, “A.S.: Part 1” looks like letterboxed TV. Lovely to gaze at — Ross Berryman gives the melodrama a friendly, expensive-looking gloss in much the same way he did for “Ugly Betty” — and the musical score by Elia Cmiral is very decent, and Taylor Schilling’s ball-busting Dagny more Sharon Stone than fevered bitch Ayn. The New Zealand-born Grant Bowler glides on his studzie looks as Henry Rearden, though how his physicality settled for Mrs. Rearden, dripping with edge by the homely but always watchable Rebecca Wisocky, is unanswered. (Who can forget Wisocky as the scratching drug-addicted, murderous, incestuous mother on an episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”?)

    In one of the deleted scenes included on the “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike” disc, Esai Morales’s Francisco d’Anconia, a Randian Hispanic George Clooney, mocks some guests at a wedding celebration by calling them an “entourage of moochers.” Had it been included in the present cut, the audience would have its best laugh. What chuckles we get have less to do with the novel than the hazards of the updating process — Dagny’s Wonder Woman ease as a Lear jet pilot, the 99% centers, the cold power generator as a miniature version of the Genesis device from “ST: The Wrath of Khan,” swanky autos with built-in TV, the ubiquitous computers, IPhones and IPads. (Apple isn’t “looting” the Chinese labor pool?) And Hannity and Williams as ads for Fox. But some of Rand’s hyper text remains, neatly compacted, only this time the philosophical crud oozes out as an unconcealed anti-commie manifesto. Exposed as contradiction, the metaphors of train and inexpensive limitless energy are anathema to the current crop of Randian boobgeoisie — they want to kill public transportation and mooch everyone else’s oil to keep their multiple Mercedes, car elevators and assault weapons factories running. Don’t know if there’s any connection other than getting a job, but reliable veterans from “Ugly Betty” — John Putch and Ross Berryman — are primarily responsible for what decent things there are in the two parts of “Atlas Shrugged.” Putch, who directed several “Ugly Betty” episodes, keeps the one-note treatise in “Atlas II” moving as television, which is where it belongs anyway. The most complimentary aspect is photographer Berryman’s pleasant eye; just as he did in the first part, he captures the settings advantageously, especially the lush butch office of Henry Rearden with the shiniest black floor I can ever remember seeing. Both men worked in a hurry to get the second part into theatres before (and purportedly sway) the 2012 election and whatever the shameful joke that is the way this project has been split into parts, they are not to blame. Nor are they to blame for the new cast, as it appears that the producers of the first part failed to get contract commitments from the originals. Escaping Berryman’s friendliness, Samantha Mathis as the second Dagny is flabby, double-chinned and has a distracting resemblance to Kari Matchett from “Covert Affairs.” Playing the irreplaceable type, surrounded by conveniently endless incompetents, she’s superior to everyone, including her own sex. (Proclaiming herself the alpha male, she’s like an energized closet boozer faking it as the author’s alter ego.) Somewhere between $20 and $30 million dollars were spent to produce “Atlas I and II” — more than enough to turn the entire novel into a handsome fantasy as TV special with the same cast — and the combined returns are just under $8 million, not counting DVD and rental sales. Since the movies advocate the doctrine of creators over government looters and citizen moochers, who made the decision to turn John Galt into a soap opera with a suspended finale? If people like the Koch Bros. are the surreptitious financiers and this is their example of “creating” in the relative freedom of the entertainment industry, and the return on investments result in two successive years of tax write-offs, are they not repeat offenders of the twin Rand crimes of mooch and loot?

    Got through “Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt?” simply because of its egregiousness. It’s of a special caliber — a smirkfest of stupidity that will require Ayn Rand to turn over in her resting place. (If she hadn’t flipped after parts one and two.) Disguised as a philosophic thriller, Ayn’s novel is foremost a polemic against Russian communism. But having been adulterated by disciple Alan Greenspan and inevitably absconded by unfaithful acolytes, all of whom helped create the 2008 financial collapse, her once secular creed was raped of its clarion call for the rights of individualism to become gleefully out-of-the-closet Christian greed. Whether sympathetic or repulsed by her Objectivism, readers recognize the deceitful shift, about which Ayn would fulminate. We also know a judicious editing job might have spared us at least a few hundred pages but Ayn wasn’t someone who brooked brevity at the expense of self-proclaimed smarts. There’s no way for readers slogging to the finish not to conclude that she’d have to be around to make sure her special brand of absolutism would be faithfully adapted to the screen. (Love or hate the nutty funny emancipation of “The Fountainhead,” she successfully demanded Warner Bros hold to her manifesto in the screenplay.) In the intimate bio “The Passion of Ayn Rand,” author Barbara Branden wrote that NBC was interested in doing a miniseries of “Atlas Shrugged” and the deal went as far as having hired Sterling Silliphant to do a 12 hour adaptation, approved by Ayn who, at Silliphant’s request, did the narrowing down of Galt’s interminable speech to a fifteen minute block. Before the calamity that is the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, was the whereabouts of that script ever sought? How difficult would it have been for the boobhead Randians to find and refurbish it? Of course, they weren’t interested in serving Ayn’s best interests; they didn’t care that she was trenchant on State and Church-compelled sacrifice for the common good; they didn’t care that in her rigged game was the honorable intent of cheering for optimum individuality as a moral good. All the movie makers cared about was to use the novel as a vote-getting device to cover two election periods; based on 2014 election returns, the voters they were appealing to would be anathema to the author: white Christian bigots. They didn’t see “Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt?” — its box office so dismal it vacated most theatres in two weeks and gone entirely after three — and even if they had seen it, there’s more than reasonable doubt they’d recognize the movie’s chief theme of elitist-controlled opportunism for all the cartoonish buffonery. Branden also wrote that Ayn wanted Farrah Fawcett for Dagny, presumably for the miniseries. Obviously, Dagny is Ayn’s dreamy alter-ego searing with intelligence and loaded with oomph, a heroine to admire as well as fuck. Though the author had passed before Farrah displayed limited acting chops in “The Burning Bed,” the bleached teeth icon might have had some luck, as Sharon Stone might have, albeit without erudite threat. (There were teases some years back about Angelina Jolie going dual purpose for Oliver Stone.) Instead, as the third Dagny in the series, we get this mousy little thing called Laura Regan and who wants to do her? John Galt, played with such fleer by Kristoffer Polaha that I laughed my ass off when he’s getting electro-shocked by a psycho who, at the controls, recalls the frenzied Colin Clive in “Frankenstein.” The “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy is its own pantheon to champions of incompetence.

  2. Doug says:

    I had no idea that AS’s budget was around 20 million. It looks so barebones, and at times downright cheap! I may have to check out the other 2 parts. I hadn’t heard if they had been released. But then again, why throw away 4 hours of my life?

  3. Capitalist says:

    These two reviews are perhaps the most loathsome that I’ve ever seen. Are you guys really as sub-human as you seem?? Do you really hate your lives?

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