Next to Hillary Clinton, Ayn Rand is probably the most polarizing woman of modern times. Her two most well-known books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” have helped countless twenty-something Americans figure out which side of the ideological divide we fall on. Love her or hate her, chances are you at least know the basics of her philosophy: Individual freedom is all-important. The world works best when every individual looks out for his or her own rational self-interest (The virtue of selfishness). The world moves forward because of the insights of individual creators and inventors. Individual producers should be free to exchange their wares in the free market of laissez-faire capitalism, and government should not confiscate the fruits of their labor in order to feed people who do not produce.
These ideas are obviously a counterpoint to the views of the Left, and that was Rand’s intention. Her books gained traction because they gave voice to a worldview held by at least half the country, but generally ignored by artists. This is why Rand’s voice still speaks so loudly today despite the fact that she is arguably a writer of limited talents. Even those who love her ideas have to admit that her books are ponderous and preachy, with often ludicrous plot elements. Still, critiquing Ayn Rand’s writing at this point is as pointless as criticizing the Bible. The ideas are the important things, and people either believe them or they don’t.
This brings us to the “Atlas Shrugged” movie. It has been on my Netflix queue for ages, constantly overlooked. I happen to be one who likes Rand’s ideas, but I was not optimistic about this film. The book “Atlas Shrugged” is long and full of pages-long monologues on various themes of Rand’s political philosophy. I figured it was un-filmable.
Imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be watchable! It’s beautifully filmed, the (mostly little-known) actors are competent, and the film actually manages to boil down Rand’s stilted, preachy narrative into something that mostly flows, while maintaining her message.
For those who haven’t read the book, it is the story of industrialists and inventors trying to keep their businesses going during an economic depression and in the face of socialist meddling. Railroad executive/engineer Dagny Taggart and steel magnate/inventor Hank Rearden are capable, practical leaders who could probably turn the economy around if they weren’t constantly beset by politicians and slimy businessmen who seek to get ahead through government favors. The bottom-dwellers cry “unfair competition” when a competitor threatens to get ahead, and rather than innovate, they get laws passed that are supposedly “for the common good,” but are really aimed at crippling their competition.
Meanwhile, skilled inventors, engineers, and executives are disappearing one-by-one after being approached by a mysterious man in a trench-coat and hat. While Dagny and Hank struggle to keep their industries going despite all the parasites, they also try to figure out what is happening to all these capable people, and to answer the rhetorical question on everyone’s lips, “Who is John Galt?”
Sound a bit ridiculous or contrived? It is. Remember, in Rand’s work, plot is completely subservient to her philosophy. With no background in science or technology, Rand just made up scientific advancements that served her story, and they are sometimes as ridiculous as her utopian fantasies. Nonetheless, her depictions of political maneuvering and interference in business are pretty realistic. Viewers (and readers) in any decade will recognize the manipulative socialist propaganda and the mania for innovation-strangling regulations. People like this story because it helps them put into words what instinctively repels them about Statism and Socialism. In it’s slavish worship of laissez-faire capitalism, of course, the story ignores the historical tendency of all enterprises to eventually come under the control of people whose only talent is taking advantage of power to make money. This type of Capitalist will use government regulation to his advantage if possible, but he can also simply manipulate markets through deception, monopoly, and bullying. Government regulation is an imperfect counterbalance to this power, but it is all we have. Rand’s complete blindness to this reality is a major weakness that leaves her work open to ridicule from the Left.
The bottom line is that if you like Ayn Rand’s philosophy, you will probably like the movie. For a low-budget portrayal of a rather contrived story, it’s surprisingly well-put-together. Now for the bad news. The filmmakers broke the story into three parts. This is Part I. For Part II, they completely replaced the cast and director. So in addition to asking “Who is John Galt,” we get to spend the first part of the sequel trying to figure out who everyone else is.
3 stars out of 5