Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged Part I

“The most anticlimactic non-event since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times

“[C]uts corners in every respect.” – Peter Debruge, Variety

“Botched” – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

“Atlas Shrugged Part I” has at least one thing in common with the epic Ayn Rand novel on which it is based.

The critics hate it.

But as Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts.” The 26th President went on to explain, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause.” In this case, the man in the arena is Cybex International CEO John Aglialoro. It turns out Mr.Aglialoro and I were both in the audience for Ayn Rand’s last Ford Hall Forum speech in 1981. Mr. Aglialoro has devoted many of the years since then to bringing her magnum opus to the big screen. He acquired the rights in 1992 and set out to sell the project to a studio. Although he got close several times, including one venture that was to star Angelina Jolie, the deals always fell through. Last year, with the expiration of his rights to the story imminent, Mr. Aglialoro decided to produce the film himself. Due to the approaching deadline and the lack of studio backing, it was necessary to complete filming in six weeks with a pathetic production budget of $10 million.

The result is magnificent.

The movie, which covers Part I of the three-part novel, is set in the not too distant future. The collapse of the Middle East has caused the Dow Jones to crash to 4,000 and driven the price of gasoline to $37 per gallon. Amid depression-level unemployment, Americans are giving up, expressing their resignation in the slang phrase, “Who is John Galt?” The only thing preventing a complete reversal of the industrial revolution is a thin ribbon of railroad track connecting the Wyatt Oil fields of Colorado to the rest of the United States. Unfortunately, the century-old track is crumbling; wrecks are frequent and catastrophic.

It falls to the heroine, Dagny Taggart, to rebuild the line and thereby save the country. The new track is to be made of Rearden Metal, an untried alloy, lighter, stronger, and cheaper than steel, invented by industrialist Hank Rearden. In defiance of the despair and mediocrity around her, Dagny rechristens the stretch of track from Cheyenne to Wyatt Junction “The John Galt Line”. Together, she and Hank must overcome bureaucratic meddling, threats from union bosses, opposition from the State Science Institute, and the mysterious and always untimely disappearances of their allies. Like Mr. Aglioloro, they have an impossibly short time to complete a monumental task.

The casting of the leads is excellent. The tough-as-rails Dagny is a challenging role for an actress. She is an extremely passionate woman who is outwardly unemotional. The lovely Taylor Schilling steps up to this challenge beautifully and also shows genuine sparkage in her scenes with Grant Bowler’s Hank Rearden. The tall, angular Mr. Bowler looks like an Ayn Rand hero; in fact, he looks like Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor. His shy half-smile makes him thoroughly likable. In an era when so many businessmen are desperate to assure us they’re working for the public good, it is refreshing to hear Mr. Bowler boast unapologetically, “My only goal is to make money.” As director Paul Johannson said, “I got the right Rearden.”

Johannson’s success in getting the right leads is offset by mixed results with the supporting cast. With his out-of-date pencil mustache and overly familiar manner, Jon Polito is perfectly sleazy as Hank Rearden’s Jeff Immelt-style competitor Orren Boyle. Michael Lerner portrays bureaucrat Wesley Mouch as a chunky mediocrity with a Jersey accent. As we were leaving the theater, one of my friends joked, “How did they get Barney Frank to play the part?” Armin Shimerman (Principal Snyder from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) brings the snide malevolence he’s so good at to the role of Dr. Potter from the State Science Institute. On the downside Rebecca Wisocky is somewhat wooden as Lillian Rearden and Patrick Fischler is way too trendy for businessman Paul Larkin. Johannson himself, doubling as John Galt, has this weird Keannu Reeves vocal inflection thing going.

“Atlas Shrugged Part I” is cinematic in the best sense of the word: every frame is visually stunning. You can get a sample from this video I put together from publicity stills:

The luxurious marble offices, hotels, and bars of New York are, in the book’s phrase, places of competence and power; the sweeping vistas of the Colorado mountains breathtaking; the old wood paneling in Ellis Wyatt’s Victorian house so rich you can practically smell the furniture polish. I confess that I got a little choked up at the first sight of the sparkling blue-tinged rail of the John Galt Line; it is as much a star of the film as Taylor Schilling or Grant Bowler.

Fitting the first 336 pages of the novel into an hour and forty-two minutes necessarily requires omitting some lines and scenes. Like any Ayn Rand fan, I was destined to be disappointed by some of the choices. In particular I missed the one-liners Dagny’s ex-lover Francisco d’Anconia lobbed at the villains during a party for Hank Rearden’s wedding anniversary. (Earnest matron: “We were just discussing a most interesting subject. Dr. Pritchett was telling us that nothing is anything.” Francisco: “He should, undoubtedly, know more than anyone else about that.”) Not only are these lines absent, but the whole tone of the scene is wrong. It looks like a really fun party with lots of toasting and jazz music. The scene fails to communicate that Rearden, who doesn’t like parties to begin with, and is especially ambivalent about one celebrating his loveless marriage to Lillian, is not having a good time.

In that, he differed from me and the friends who joined me at the theater. We had a great time. When it ended and the lights came on, one of them said, “I want three more hours.” So do I. Can’t wait for Part II. The critics really don’t count.


  1. The movie was great for those of us who've read the book (several times) and loved it. I'd be interested to hear how the movie was for someone who is open to the message but hadn't read the book.

  2. I just saw Atlas Shrugged pt. 1.
    First of all, it was incredibly well-cast. I love that comment about getting Barney Frank to play Wesley Mouch (i.e. himself). I have no patience for literalists who complain that Dagny wasn't a blonde, or that Eddie Willers wasn't black. Dagny's deep, penetrating, expressive eyes, especially in the anniversary party scene, recalled those of Ayn Rand herself.

    Speaking of the anniversary party scene, which was a key pivot point for the whole movie, the jewelry exchange between Mrs. Rearden and Dagny was very well done. It was positively Biblical in the way it recalled Esau trading his birthright to Jacob, as Lillian symbolically trades away her right to her husband to Dagny.

    Other roles, both large and tiny, really clicked. Rearden of course, and James Taggart with his slacker demeanor, but also that railroad union rep who totally creeped me out. I think in real life he must work for the SEIU! The role of Francisco, due to its enigmatic nature, was bound to be difficult, and could have been done better. It was as if we were seeing him through the confused eyes of Rearden, rather than the clear eyes of Rand. I don't think it was necessary to have a "soft" portrayal to preserve the mystery.

    My wife thought that Dagny's final scene was cheesy. I can see that point of view, but I bought it, on the strength of the actress who was selling it to me. The dialogue at the Wyatt celebration was muddy and impressionistic, which is fine I suppose, but that and some other scenes were calling out for retakes for a better reaction, or a better delivery. I'm guessing that like the John Galt Line itself, the movie did not have the time or budget for anything but the essentials.

    There could be trouble if Atlas Shrugged becomes too successful. It is rumored that the Secretary of Health and Human Services may outlaw all Medicare reimbursements to doctors who see the movie, and require them to wear GPS-equipped ankle bracelets.

  3. Peter: Thanks for posting. I'm right there with you re: literalists, but with your wife re: Dagny's final scene. Although it was true to the book ("her scream cut the voices of the crowd"), on the screen it reminded me too much of "KHAN!".

    Matthew Marsden did capture the mediocrity of James Taggart. I haven't watched this video yet (it's a bit long), but I'm told he says he prepared for the role by studying John Edwards.

    I daresay you're right about HHS cutting off Medicare reimbursements to doctors who see the movie. This of course will set off bureaucratic infighting with the IRS, which will attempt to loot a share of the profit by imposing a special tax on ticket sales.