Speaking for myself, I can’t wait to see John Galt’s 100-page soliloquy on screen, a pleasure that should be heading our way in, what? Twelve months? Eighteen?
Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart adds some gravitas to the second in the Atlas Shrugged series – Atlas Shrugged II: Either-Or – and director John Putch (the 2005 Poseidon Adventure, The Book of Love) keeps the story moving right along. Some of the aesthetic choices are kind of weird (what were they thinking with the cut of that silver evening gown on Mathis? And why the Boyz-in-the-Hood slow-mo with the Taggart Transcontinental board sauntering down the corridor?), but overall, the action is peppy and interest-keeping.
I had two strong impressions, however, watching the film yesterday. One was quite simple: this should have been done as a TV miniseries. Ending with cliffhangers is just tacky for theater fare. (Changing out the lead actors between Parts is hard to overcome as well. Hank Rearden was Grant Bowler but is now Jason Beghe – another change for the better, in my view, but it’s still jarring. And where was Esai Morales when we needed him for Francisco D’Anconia in Part I?)
The writers (Duke Sandefur, Brian Patrick O’Toole, and Duncan Scott) tried to square the circle on the cliffhanger problem – Dagny pilots her plane into John Galt’s mountain redoubt, and Part II ends with his face in shadow as he pulls her out of the wreckage – by making it a story resolution previsaged in the movie’s opening sequence. But, naahh, it’s still a cliffhanger, and it belongs in a cable miniseries. I’m seeing six episodes and endless cult fascination.
The other problem is harder to solve. The similarities between the U.S. federal government of 2012 and its fictional doppelganger in Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel are – who knew this would be weird – too obvious. The tanking economy of Atlas Shrugged hits too close to home. What you sit there thinking is not so much that Rand wrote prophetically as that the trappings of her fictional world are outdated and a tad annoying.
It’s as if someone had made – in 1942 – a movie of the Homer Lea geopolitical classic The Valor of Ignorance, which in 1909 prophesied a war between the US and Japan, starting with a sneak attack across the Pacific. Had such a movie been made in 1929, it would have been appreciated later on, and perhaps become a minor classic. But in 1942, post-Pearl Harbor audiences would have seen little point in creating a fictional story to compete with the real one.
An Atlas Shrugged made – faithfully to the novel – as a 1970s miniseries would no doubt be beloved of Rand fans today, and would figure in YouTube clips as a clincher to libertarian and conservative arguments across the infosphere.
Trying to set the story in the present day, with tablet PCs and ubiquitous information screens dotting the landscape, just highlights the incongruity of plot elements like railroads and steel – and in particular, the conundrum of the “motor of the world” device, which comes off in II as laughably silly. With all that information at their fingertips, the remaining Great Brains of Fair Share America can’t, like, do some web searches?
One scene is especially poignant. At the Unification Board hearing on Hank Rearden’s unauthorized shipment of Rearden metal to coal magnate Ken Danagger (Arye Gross), the scene is staged much like a 1930s show-trial, with sanctimonious officials presiding and a chamber full of press and people forming judgments as they watch.
But the theater of 20th-century collectivism has never figured on the American political scene, and it doesn’t today. The real inroads of ideological collectivism on America have been made more sedulously and incrementally, in the most banal and uninteresting ways, with some industries sued into co-dependence here, and some silent job-killing over there. Today’s industrial titan faces less the public calumny of show-trial tribunals than the disdain of bureaucrats. The latter never approach their real goal head-on, but instead administer death to the titan’s bottom line by a thousand tangential cuts.
Ayn Rand’s ideas were formed by Sovietism, and ultimately, it would take a lot more editing to make Atlas Shrugged stand outside of its time on screen. Americans saw the cartoonish bluntness of Sovietism coming; it was making the rule of law available for service to ideological arbitrariness that few recognized as a great threat 40 or 50 years ago. That’s hard to capture in film, but the difference between that reality and Rand’s more dramatic vision of the collectivist threat lurks over the Atlas Shrugged movies like an unanswered doorbell.
One acting note: Samantha Mathis does as well with Dagny Taggart as I think anyone could. It’s hard to stride, Taggart-style, without looking like you’re prancing or huffing, but Mathis brings it off. One does wonder about the Taggart Central railroad control crew, which is so pathetically unable to function if she’s not there. Who’s training these people, and what are the standards? Kind of an unintentional Leadership 101 moment.
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