So this is ATLAS SHRUGGED.
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.
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.)
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.