Atlas Endures


The new movie Atlas Shrugged: Part I did well enough in limited release to warrant wider distribution this weekend, but critics absolutely hate it.  It’s currently standing at 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that collects ratings from many different sources and computes an average score.  This is the same aggregate score earned by The Adventures of Pluto Nash, the 2002 Eddie Murphy box-office disaster that is widely considered one of the worst films ever made.  It should be noted that Rotten Tomatoes’ readers appear to view Atlas Shrugged in a much more positive light, giving it an 85% reader review score.

Some of the criticism pouring from big-time critics is patently unfair, even ridiculous.  The production values take a lot of ribbing, but they’re really not a problem, especially in light of the miniscule budget.  This is a fine-looking movie.  It doesn’t have the special effects that will shortly be deployed to show us the Norse god of thunder battling frost giants, but it doesn’t need them.

Most professional reviews savage the acting in Atlas Shrugged, and here the critics stand on firmer ground.  When a seasoned pro like Armin Shimmerman turns up in a short but crucial scene, he provides a rather sharp contrast with the rest of the cast.  There’s a cringe-inducing scene near the end that tosses in Rand’s “sin of altruism” concept as a bit of fan service for Objectivists, using one of the most unintentionally hilarious voice-over conversations ever recorded. 

Still, I’ve seen A-list stars turn in worse performances that Grant Bowler’s oddly compelling Hank Rearden, Graham Beckel’s blustery Ellis Wyatt, or Matthew Marsden’s loathsome James Taggart.  Taylor Schilling, heading the cast as Dagny Taggart, grows much more comfortable with the character as she goes along, but she’s painfully stiff at first. 

Let’s face it: nobody is going to spin Ayn Rand’s dialogue into Oscar gold.  This could fairly be blamed on the script, since the screenwriters could have made it smoother.  If Rand purists can handle her story being updated to 2016, surely they could handle the characters talking more like the real inhabitants of early 21st-century Earth.  I don’t think there would have been any strong objections to making John Galt sound a bit more seductive, instead of coming off like a robot relaying Ayn Rand’s text messages from beyond the grave.

The key to appreciating the violent media reaction to this film is to understand that while the critics complain loudly about the stiff dialogue and wooden acting of Rand’s heroes, it’s the portrayal of the villains that really bothers them… and every damn word they say is completely realistic and believable.

Some of the dialogue in this movie was ripped from today’s headlines… and by “today” I mean last Friday, months after filming was completed.  If you know the story of Obama’s National Labor Relations Board, and how it’s using government power to force Boeing back into the waiting arms of Washington State unions instead of opening a plant in South Carolina, there are passages in Atlas Shrugged that will make your hair stand on end.

The Armin Shimmerman scene illustrates the determination of politicians to conceal objective reality beneath layers of ideology.  Replace Hank Rearden’s simple, devastating question – “Is Rearden metal good?” – with “Do Obama’s solar shingles work?” or “Does America have abundant domestic oil resources?” and try them on Administration flunkies who cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes” or “no”… because they know the answer, but it is politically impossible for them to say it.

This is a movie set five years in the future, based on a book written sixty years ago, but it captures the rhetoric and reality of modern American crony capitalism perfectly.  It’s almost ironic that liberal reviewers hate the film so passionately, since it’s a story about people trying to build the high-speed rail that President Obama wants to blow fifty billion non-existent deficit dollars on.  You’d think they would be happy… but instead they’re furious, and it’s because the things done to thwart the improbable heroes of Atlas Shrugged are dangerously, subversively realistic.

If you want to see a ridiculous polemic stuffed into a preposterous political fairy tale, go rent out Rob Reiner’s laugh riot The American President from 1995.  Then see Atlas Shrugged: Part I and tell me which film is more believable.  Tell me you can’t imagine laws to prevent profitable companies from firing anyone… or re-distribute wealth away from booming states, in the national interest… or forbid evil tycoons from owning more than one company… rolling out of a White House very much like this one.  Tell me the ham-fisted ministries and agencies humming away in the background of Atlas Shrugged are unthinkable to a government riddled with unelected, unaccountable “czars,” reporting to a President who defies lawful Congressional directives to defund them.  

Let Obama pour all those billions into the guaranteed failure of “high-speed rail,” and you might just find yourself watching scenes from this film come to life in a decade or so, when we’re told what the benevolent State must do to “protect the people’s investment” in all those new passenger rail lines that just can’t seem to turn a profit.  The “solution” proposed in Rand’s tale is an allegorical fantasy, but the problem it identifies is all too real. 

That’s why a surprising number of people have been buying tickets to a long, talky movie whose special-effects climax depicts people riding on a train, with a cliffhanger ending for sequels that might never be produced.  Atlas may never shrug, but Atlas Shrugged endures, because Dagny tells us the correct answer to “Who is John Galt?” right before she hops aboard a machine industry has created in defiance of politics.