There were two other people in the entire theater when I entered. About twenty minutes in, they were kicked out – for sneaking into a showing of Atlas Shrugged Part II. I would conquer this film in the Ayn Rand manner – totally alone.
One has to admire John Aglialoro, the producer of Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II. A successful businessman, these films may be his own John Galt Line. He’s managed to put out the second installment even after critics savaged Part I, and the entire cast seems to have abandoned him. Different actors portray Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Eddie Willers, Francisco d’Anconia, and all the rest of your freedom fanboy favorites, so not only do you have to accept the postwar world of Atlas Shrugged as set in the 21st century, you have to forcibly break with any recollections of the last film.
The faces have changed, the backgrounds have changed, and even the offices of our businessmen heroes have changed. This is a serious problem because this film picks right up where the last one left off, meaning newcomers and returning viewers alike are going to be confused, if not bored by characters who seemingly have no motivations for anything they are doing. If you aren’t already familiar with the novel, you will gain nothing from the film that you won’t get from watching an episode of Larry Kudlow.
Part I managed to strip away the complexity of characters in an Ayn Rand novel, which is astonishing. The film was turned into a simplistic “capitalism good, government bad” campaign commercial which ignored the deeper roots and more subversive elements of Rand’s philosophy. The film was part of a libertarian marketing strategy deliberately designed to abolish some of more interesting implications of both libertarianism and Objectivism, and instead convince people to shut up and support slogans. James Kirkpatrick wrote that the point of the first movie was seemingly to get you to vote for Gary Johnson. The point of this one, as illustrated by a cameo of Sean Hannity (as himself) praising Hank Rearden, is to get you to vote for Mitt Romney. By Part III, we’ll find out that John Galt’s secret identity is actually Ronald Reagan.
It may just be impossible to film Atlas Shrugged in anything resembling a coherent way, so the film satisfies Rand fans by dutifully covering each major checkpoint of the middle part of the novel. The film begins with Dagny Taggart about to literally crash Galt’s Gulch in her airplane, and then flashes back. A short intro tells us that the country is totally dependent on rail travel, as gas has become too expensive. A scene in which Dagny fills up her truck shows the bill as over $800. Dagny and Dr. Robert Stadler are puzzling over the mysterious motor found in the last film, which though incomplete, has the potential to create a limitless supply of energy and save the economy. Even Ayn Rand books, it seems, posit clean energy as the ultimate moral good. While there are the occasional references to the State Science Institute’s condemnation of Rearden Metal, we don’t know why Dagny despises Stadler the way she does. We are given no insight into Stadler’s character, the man of genius who allies with the system.
James Rearden is the President of Taggart Transcontinental but is incompetent and only achieved his position because of his lineage and his skill at governmental manipulation and public relations. He meets Cherryl, a poor cashier who worships him as a great hero because she thinks he built the John Galt Line. He marries her, and (in a gaping departure from the novel) takes her to see the last performance of the great composer Richard Halley. At the wedding, Cherryl confronts Dagny, telling her “I’m the woman in this family now” to which Dagny responds, “That’s all right, I’m the man.”
The problem is that the whole motivation behind this subplot, critical to Rand’s thesis, is missing. James marries Cherryl because he sees her as worthless and enjoys the idea of lifting up a peasant. Cherryl worships James because she mistakenly thinks he is behind Dagny’s achievements. Rand’s point is that a person’s achievements and character are linked – in her conception, love is mutual hero worship, devotion to the best in one another. James only uses Cherryl because it makes him look good and Cherryl doesn’t understand what James really is – a hollow corporate frontman. None of this is addressed, or even set up for Part III, so why bother including it?
Even more unforgivably, the character of Hank Rearden is horribly portrayed. This is no slight against Jason Beghe, the gravelly character actor who takes over from Grant Bowler from Part I. He’s given nothing to work with. Beghe portrays Rearden as a forceful, even cocky steel magnate. He proudly defends his right to run his business as he sees fit, giving a forceful speech to a wildly applauding racially diverse crowd when he is put on trial for violating a pointless law. While this is gung ho material for the Beltway Right, the film completely misses Rearden’s moral confusion.
Rearden is a tormented hero in Atlas Shrugged, tortured by guilt over his affair with Dagny Taggart and his betrayal of his wife. The portrayal of his wife in Part I was one of the few highlights of the first installment, with Lillian as an emotionally manipulative social climber who tears apart her husband from the inside. She uses his moral code and her marital status as a weapon against him. Rearden doesn’t understand this nor does he comprehend why the world functions the way it does and why people are out to destroy him.
In many ways, Rearden is a stand in for the reader, who slowly comes to understand over the course of the novel the real motivations behind his enemies, and, crucially, the connection between the political war against him, his personal unhappiness, and his reluctant love for Dagny Taggart. Rand hammers this home in her overwrought style, repeatedly discussing the “click” Rearden experiences when he understands another part of the “looter” mindset. None of this is portrayed. Instead, Beghe strides through the film and doesn’t show the slightest guilt in his affair, nor the helpless confusion in the face of statism. He’s simply a guy who wears cool black suits and likes low taxes and sex.
The sexual politics of the story simply don’t work in 21st century America. Lillian, rather than the skillful manipulator of the first film, is just an annoying woman with no fashion sense who screeches at him like a harpy. Why this woman has any hold on him at all is completely unexplained. Rearden’s affair with Dagny Taggart is used to blackmail him into signing away the patent to “Rearden Metal” to the government. However, why anyone in near future America would care that an unmarried woman is having an affair with a powerful businessman is also a mystery.
Dagny Taggart, as portrayed by Samantha Mathis, actually has a bit of depth. While she lacks the sex appeal of Taylor Schilling’s portrayal, Mathis’s Dagny captures the suffering of the character, the feeling that she is carrying some incredible burden that she can’t put down. Dagny at least experiences a conflict as she sees the motor of the world stopping but continues to fight her war from the offices of Taggart Transcontinental. Again however, the script gives Mathis little to work with when it comes to her relationship with Rearden and her desperate yearning for someone who fully understands her. Mathis’s Dagny resembles a shell shocked solider, pushing through even though she’s at the brink of breaking down any second.
There are two nonwhite characters in the film, both of whom were white in the book. Francisco d’Anconia, blue-eyed in the book, a mestizo here, is portrayed by Esai Morales. Morales gives d’Anconia at least some of the force and charisma the character was so utterly lacking in the first installment, delivering the famous rebuttal to “money is the root of all evil” with conviction and energy. Even with this brief triumph, the movie manages to strip the life away from even this character. The sexual tension between Francisco and Dagny, the depth of his sacrifice in giving up the woman he loves, the tension between Hank Rearden and Francisco d’Anconia – all of this is abandoned. Francisco d’Anconia is actually the most tragic figure of the book, a superlatively accomplished man who must continue to engage in the real world and live a lie in order to bring about the destruction of the existing order. We don’t get to see any of that conflict and instead we are presented with what looks like a spokesperson for Somos Republicanos giving a presentation on “Hispanics, Republican Outreach, and Free Markets” at CPAC.
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Eddie Willers has been transformed into a black man again, as with Part I. The casting here makes even less sense, as at least in the first installment black Eddie Willers was still recognizable as a character. A self described “serf” of Taggart Transcontinental, Eddie is supposed to be an average man with sound moral principles who faithfully serves Dagny Taggart, whom he admires, and, he eventually realizes, loves. He goes forward only because of her force of will. When she abandons the world, he is destroyed, a real casualty of “The Strike.” Here, Eddie pulls Dagny along. When Dagny moans, “Where is . . . anyone who can make a difference?” he says, “I’m sitting next to one.” Eddie is portrayed by Richard T. Jones, a towering black actor chiefly famous for Tyler Perry movies and one of the worst commencement speeches in history. A powerfully built black guy dressed to kill in expensive suits and sunglasses, he looks like a bodyguard or a pro athlete about to hit the clubs, hardly the beaten down aide de camp of Dagny Taggart.
Stripped of depth and motivation, the film has to rely almost entirely on action. This it does competently, with the story moving along at a brisk pace. The production values are better than the first film, and while the changed decors are distracting, the futuristic office settings combined with the abandoned buildings and cars of a collapsing country actually seem plausible.
The subtitle of Part II is “The Strike,” and other than Dagny and Rearden, men of ability are fleeing their posts, bringing the nation to a halt. The government responds with Directive 10-289, which freezes wages and spending, as announced to the nation by the Head of State hilariously portrayed by Ray Wise, the character actor who played the reactionary President of the United States from the computer game Red Alert 2.
Critically, even though the film gets the setting and aesthetics right, it manages to screw up the politics. A world where Sean Hannity and Juan Williams are still on Fox News doesn’t add up to a world that has Directive 10-289. While there are still a few scattered protestors, the movie doesn’t capture the feel of widespread social chaos and furious anger necessary for something like Directive 10-289 to be implemented. While the government fiendishly plots, the film uses what has to be recycled footage of Tea Party rallies to show populist opposition. In one particularly overwrought scene, a homeless man scrawls a “tombstone” for America to mark the death of the country with the passage of Directive 10-289, something not originally in the book and even more melodramatic than Rand at her worst.
While it’s revealing that the movie’s conservative and libertarian backers would confuse the death of the nation with the passage of restrictive economic laws, it’s not surprising. To a typical right-of-center American, the country is just a market bound together by pro-capitalist principles. What is more interesting is how the film departs from the novel in putting all of the blame on nefarious government officials, rather than the people themselves. Aside from a few scattered protesters, who exactly is supporting the evil Wesley Mouch? Where is the liberal intelligentsia that Rand so brilliantly satirized in both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead?
They are nowhere to be found, and this may tell us more about the premises of the establishment American Right than Rand’s own views. Later propaganda notwithstanding, Rand had a caviler ruthlessness towards those she considered lesser beings than her capitalist Übermenschen. She drew a great deal of inspiration from a serial killer and had a character say in We the Living (her best novel) “What are your masses but mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?” Forced to watch a communist play about oppressive landlords, she identified with the character holding the whip.
Arguably the most powerful scene in Atlas Shrugged is the crash of the Taggart Comet. This is Rand at her most ruthless, as she systematically goes through passenger after passenger, detailing how every single one of them shared principles that led directly to the socialist dystopia. The train enters the Taggart Tunnel, with the Ellis Wyatt’s “torch” being the last thing they ever saw. When the train collides with an Army special and they are all killed, Rand is quite explicit that they had it coming. In innumerable ways, they had all helped to build the tyranny they lived under and even approved of it. The Taggart employees helped make it happen, because no one had the courage to take responsibility and stop certain disaster. There are no innocents, and judgment is certain. Moreover, Rand doesn’t back away from the horror of it all – hundreds of people die and the scope of the slaughter forces Dagny back to take command of Taggart Transcontinental to salvage what she can. Francisco desperately pleads for her to leave the company – and the people who use it – to its fate. Only then do we realize the full moral implications of “The Strike” and the terrible resolve men like d’Anconia and John Galt possess.
Here, the train crashes because the guy who plays Detective Frank Tripp decides to act like a jerk. Wyatt’s torch doesn’t appear, and none of the other passengers are profiled. It’s just a bad accident, something that the employees at Taggart Transcontinental tried their best to avoid. Dagny goes back to work, which upsets Francisco, but no one seems too angry. Perhaps it is just too difficult to present it on screen, but it seems like just one more hollowing out of a story already not noted for its emotional complexity. As for fan favorite Ragnar Danneskjold, who spends his days on the high seas robbing foreign aid ships, he is nowhere to be found.
This seems deliberate. Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II is part of a marketing effort for the American capitalist Right. Sean Hannity won’t be making a cameo for the film treatment of Storm of Steel anytime soon. The film has to shy away from the elements of Rand’s beliefs that would disturb a mass constituency. The film cannot afford to show that Rand’s free market principles were an outgrowth from her deeper beliefs about morality and philosophy. It can’t afford to show the masses as responsible for their own problems, as opposed to passive victims of Obama or whatever Democrat needs to be voted out. Atlas Shrugged can’t be a fictional portrayal of Objectivism or even a faithful telling of the story. It has to be a campaign commercial.
Atlas Shrugged Part II will give you a more or less accurate recounting of the events of Rand’s novel. It won’t tell you why you should care or even why the characters do. It won’t tell you what is at stake or what Rand’s “sense of life” was all about. It won’t even tell you that there is any conflict other than “freedom” vs. “government.” It’s dumbed down, stripped of subversion, and not too well attended, lest libertarians be anything other than part of the Republican coalition. The movie is exactly what Conservatism Inc. needs it to be.