Film review: Atlas Shrugged

While some people waited excitedly for the premiere of the first cinema installment of Ayn Rand’s seminal novel Atlas Shrugged, I have to admit that I didn’t hold out high expectations for the film.  The book was a smashing exercise in philosophical, economic, and political study — absolutely brilliant.  As entertainment, however, the novel has its problems, and even the most determined reader can find getting through the book’s massive size a daunting and patience-testing task.  I read Atlas Shrugged twenty-five years ago, and while I appreciated its brilliance, I have had little desire to revisit it since.

So it’s fair to say that I prepared myself for a difficult slog, but to my surprise, Atlas Shrugged Part I turned into an intriguing, stylish film that did not water down the Randian message in the least.   In fact, the film format seems to free the characters in some sense from the limitations of Rand’s prose and give more clarity and purpose to the story, while keeping its message firmly at the film’s center.

When the novel was first published in 1957, the rail industry was still a central key to the American economy.  The film takes place in the near future, starting in 2016, and cleverly uses a global energy crisis to return rail to a central position in American industry.  Economic decline has pushed American government with ever-increasing speed into interventionism and central planning.  Politicians and lobbyists scream about fairness and the need to force the wealthy to pay their share in order to show compassion.  In fact, the producers could have placed large blocs of Barack Obama’s entitlement-reform speech from last Wednesday into the film, and it would have fit neatly into the narrative.

A few titans of industry resist the momentum of socialism — or to be more accurate, the crony capitalism that precedes and abets socialism and fascism. Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) needs to save her family’s railroad empire from her incompetent brother (Matthew Marsden), and turns to steel producer Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) for a revolutionary new metal for aging and unreliable tracks.  She needs them to service oil tycoon Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), who says he has discovered an ocean of oil in Colorado. Rearden’s facing trouble from the government as his former advocate Wesley Mouch (Michael Lerner) essentially switches sides and tries to put him out of business.  Meanwhile, prominent and successful men keep disappearing without a trace, and no one knows where they have gone — except perhaps Dagny’s old flame Francisco (Jsu Garcia), who may not be the dissipated playboy he seems.

All of this could have moved turgidly along for the 102 minutes of screen time that Part 1 takes, and in the first few minutes, the introductory dialogue seems a little stilted and forced.  The film quickly finds its pace, though, and moves snappily along afterward.  While the plot has been updated to contemporary times, the style of the film hearkens back to Rand’s time.  Dialogue is kept spare and meaningful, and skips the present-day sensibilities of tossing in stock comic-relief characters to lighten the mood. Visually, the film is rich and inviting, and thematically uses both the skepticism of noirish intrigues and the CinemaScope optimism seen in the 1950s and early 1960s, such as in films like Giant, which also had its share of both.

The characters get divided up fairly quickly into camps of antagonists and protagonists, with only Francisco and Paul Larkin (Patrick Fischler) having much ambiguity, and most of the characters in Part 1 belong in the former camp.  In morality plays — and this is definitely a large, complicated morality play — this kind of clarity is not unusual, and usually works.  It certainly does in Part 1.  Those used to having less certainty and more nuance in film characters will feel out of place, perhaps, but don’t confuse this with cardboard characterizations, at least not with the main characters.  Grant Bowler’s Henry Reardon is a masterpiece of underplayed power and nuance, easily the best performance in this installment, although newcomer Taylor Schilling does well as the central character in the film.

The best word to describe Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is … surprising.  It’s surprisingly well-paced, surprisingly intelligent, surprisingly well-acted, and surprisingly entertaining.  Perhaps most surprising of all, it has me thinking about re-reading the novel again.  I would highly recommend it to friends and their families.

Speaking of friends, one of the actors in the film is Navid Neghaban, who played the villainous husband in The Stoning of Soraya M. Navid will join me on Tuesday to discuss the film on The Ed Morrissey Show, which starts with Andrew Malcolm at 3 pm ET.

Update: I deliberately avoided reading reviews of the film until after I saw it first, but one of the first places I checked after writing my review was Reason Magazine — and I was surprised to find a range of reactions to it, from Kurt Loder’s panning to Brian Doherty’s qualified endorsement, with a more enthusiastic reaction from Matt Welch thrown in as well.   Also, according to Box Office Mojo, the limited release seems to be paying dividends.  The film had the third highest per-screen average on Friday night of the films at the box office.  The trick will be to move it up from 300 screens to somewhere over 1000, if possible.  With a budget of only $10 million, it won’t take long for the film to recoup its costs.