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Atlas Shrugged, Part 1
Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is a very good basic movie presentation of the first act of Ayn Rand's main novel and biggest and fullest literary achievement. I'm writing this in April of 2011 as the movie is in the early weeks of first theatrical release. Critical reaction has been mostly fairly negative, even among a lot of libertarians and objectivist types who should be sympathetic. I'd say the naysayers are largely wrong.
For starters, this is definitely a much better movie than The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper. I know that Ayn wrote that screenplay personally, but maybe she was too close to the material. That film would seem to me much more open to the charge of not making sense to people who haven't read the book than this one. Obviously that movie had big star power in the casting. Watching that movie was kinda weird, because there's Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper mouthing Rand dialogue - with no indication whatsoever that they had any idea of what any of this meant. Gary Cooper basically said as much years later. Very importantly, I got the strong feeling that the people who made this Atlas Shrugged movie all the way down the line actually understood what they were representing and why these people are doing the things they do.
Like many students of Rand, I'm trying to disregard decades of fantasy castings of the movie and so forth in order to properly judge and appreciate this movie that has actually gotten made. What they've put on the screen is a good, faithful basic visual representation of her novel. This modestly budgeted film perhaps lacks the special flair of a big time director. But does Atlas Shrugged really need to be Tarantino'd or Coen brothered? It's a competently made straightforward visual representation of Ayn's novel. That's quite a bit of good right there, even if it's not the perfect Platonic eiday of an Atlas movie that you think you have imagined Francis Coppola or someone making..
At this point on first viewing, I'm somewhat inclined to be just as glad that they cast basically no-name actors. If only we could have gotten Bruce Willis to play Hank Rearden! Really? It would have been box office draw, but did we really need Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart? Would throwing her big star personae into the mix really have helped? Would she have actually given a better performance than Taylor Schilling did here? I doubt it. In publicity stills, Ms Schilling seemed a little Barbie Doll-ish to me. But in action, she's totally believable and arguably considerably better than Patricia Neal as the female lead in The Fountainhead movie. As I might say of pretty much all of the acting here, she convincingly and modestly represents the book, without chewing the scenery enough to make Oscar bait of the cud. Again, I don't know that a bunch of master thespians would have better served the fairly complex storytelling going on here.
They actually did a lot of good with the looks of the actors in their parts. For one, big, bellowing Graham Beckel really comes right through as the brusque working Western oil man Ellis Wyatt. Jsu Garcia as Francisco d'Anconia came across nicely, good looking but not too pretty and carefully spooning out just about the right little bit of angst around the edges. I'd generally imagined James Taggart as fat and slouchy, but Matthew Marsden comes across convincingly as something of a bargain basement Tom Cruise. The "bargain basement" part seems like an advantage in this context, and Marsden gets a little of the nasty smarminess of classic Cruise.
Some little things just particularly pop simply from being visualized. Rebecca Wisocky as the hateful wife Lillian Rearden undermining and humiliating her husband really came across viscerally. Partly that's one of the simpler dynamics to dramatically represent, but the scene with her trading her Rearden metal bracelet to Dagny for her expensive necklace really riveted me. Look at Hank Rearden standing there amidst all these VIPs at their big anniversary party while his wife utterly and purposely publicly disrespects him and cuts his figurative nuts off. All finished, then?
I also found myself repeatedly laughing, which was probably not exactly their intention - but it was definitely sympathetic laughter. Ayn Rand was particularly noted for lacking much sense of humor, but the intellectual abstractions of Rand's de-construction of the corruption of businessmen really jumped out like funny reductio ad absurdums when presented in moving pictures. Watching Marsden's Jim Taggart in a corporate boardroom trying to apply altruistic politically correct nonsense in business decision making just looked exactly and perfectly laughably ridiculous. Perhaps I'm just insane in the membrane, but I found it laugh out loud funny to watch the CEO arguing in this dramatic emergency context against buying superior Rearden steel rails which would also actually get made and delivered as scheduled when there are so many smaller companies that need the business. More than while reading these bits of the novel, this presentation made me say YES, EXACTLY. Is THIS how you dumbasses think a businessman is supposed to think and act? And ohmygod does this look just exactly like the ugly, thuggish crony capitalism with a cheap veneer of altruism and high mindedness known as the Obama administration. The pure, transparent dishonesty and self-deluding absurdity of this all seems hilarious to me on a screen.
Some argue that this movie would only make sense if you were long steeped in the novel and Objectivism. That's a little tough for me to judge, as I can't un-read the book. I suppose that I would ideally recommend reading the novel first - especially considering that Atlas Shrugged was just about the most important book of the 20th century, but it seems to me like the story line should be fairly clear just from what's on the screen. Now, watching this movie that represents 1/3 of the novel, you might not fully get the reasoning and implications of some of this early stuff. Breaking that all down was the work of a long novel. Yet, already without fully getting the philosophical exactitudes in this movie of the first act, you can viscerally feel some of that sense of life stuff Ayn was always carrying on about if you're paying attention.
Also, many people have complained over the years about Rand supposedly being heavy handed, bludgeoning readers with overly elaborated philosophical explanations burdening the stories. You'd think that those folks would appreciate that there's a minimum of philosophical speechifying in this film. The most legitimate literary criticism of Rand's novels has been that they somewhat tended to sacrifice human characterization to didactic point making. Of course, one might make similar criticism of the character Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible. In any case, the makers of this Atlas Shrugged movie have done excellent cinematic work in turning these philosophized written abstractions into understandable flesh and blood human characters.
They've done a very good job presenting this first act of Atlas Shrugged. I for one will be excited to see what they do with the rest of this story.
-Albert Barger April 30, 2011
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