Atlas Shrugged – Part 1
I’ve just come from the lovely Larchmont Playhouse, where my wife and I caught Atlas Shrugged Part 1. I have to say that I may have been unplugged for too long, as I didn’t even know a movie had been made until this afternoon. That says a bit more about the non-existent advertising campaign than it does about my busy lifestyle. Nonetheless, I view Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel as one of the most important books ever written, so I dropped everything and headed to the nearest theater for the next showing.
The characters in Atlas Shrugged have lived in our collective conscience for half a century now. Breathing life into them now is no less challenging than making a movie about the Bible–people will argue over who played Ezekiel and the color and texture of the milk and honey. But there are some core moments and character traits that have to be observed. This film’s obvious budget issues betrayed some key points, but there were others that wouldn’t have cost a cent to fix.
Francisco is written as a playboy–not a washed up one. In my mind, he was always a Latin James Bond–cool, suave and very much a lady’s man and a man’s man at the same time. He is Antonio Banderas as Zorro, but, and this is crucial, at the end of the Zorro film–not the drunken mess that Anthony Hopkins finds at the beginning. In the film, Francisco is played as a washed up lout. He is not clean shaven, his clothes are disheveled and his hair unkempt. The effortless grace of the character is nowhere to be found, and he comes off as a hateful has been–not someone a James Taggart or Orren Boyle would trust with their fortunes.
James is meant to be an empathetic character. He is often found pleading with Dagny to fix things or to not make waves. In the film, he comes across as too self-assured and conniving. He seems to know he is evil and that he is manipulating the system–an attitude the undercuts the written character’s morality.
Played by Rebecca Wisocky, who is the perfect choice, Lilian should have been a lot colder. Her character is a cold, heartless, sexless bitch. In the film, she comes across as too warm and almost understandable. She is supposed to be patronizing and mocking Rearden, as if his efforts, his work, even his libido are all a waste of time. A perfect example of the lack of emotion in the film is the scene where Dagny trades her necklace for Lilian’s Rearden Metal bracelet. There was no passion, there was no indignation–it barely would have caused a scene in real life.
That scene should have been packed with emotion as well as exposition. Dagny is trading value for value–a core concept of the book–with a moocher who has no concept of value. It’s also the beginning of Rearden’s affections for Dagny, and her disdain for her lover’s wife. It’s meant to foreshadow the coming affair–it’s not just the bracelet that holds Lilian’s contempt and Dagny’s affection, it’s Rearden himself. If there is meat in Atlas Shrugged for a Hollywood film, it’s in the love triangle between Hank, Lilian and Dagny. As portrayed in the film, Rearden comes off as just another businessman who shags a coworker on a business trip.
The running of the John Galt Line is also a flat note in the film. This is perhaps where the low budget of the film shows most. A fundamental undercurrent in the book is that “public opinion” is being driven from the top down. That is best shown by the throngs of people standing and cheering for Dagny and Hank at each crossing as the John Galt rushes past. And when the union boss tells Dagny that his men won’t run the train, she asks for volunteers and every last one of them steps forward–ratifying her belief in her fellow man. Neither of these two core elements of “public opinion” are seen in the movie.
The film did fall flat in other places as well. When Hank and Dagny consummate their affair–Hank is wracked with guilt, and apologizes to Dagny for his base desire. Dagny laughs at him to carry the point that sex is not immoral or evil, but a beautiful act of two consenting adults. Her brash sexuality is meant to be a stark contrast against Lilian’s cold, manipulative view of sex as an animal desire to be used as leverage by a woman over a man. The film misses this and jumps to breakfast, where Dagny makes a snide comment about Hank being a “married man.”
Throughout the film, the lack of passion in the characters leaves many scenes too flat. There’s too much exposition and not enough umph. You never get the feeling that each vanished capitalist drains Hank and Dagny more and more. There is no sense of being overwhelmed, but carrying on anyway.
There are places, however, where the emotion is spot on. In the final scene, Taylor Schilling as Dagny lets out a blood curdling scream that still rings in my ears. That, overlaid with John Galt’s speech to Wyatt, is the kind of emotion that the film should build to.
On the whole, it was a good movie, but not fully worthy of Ayn Rand’s work.