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David Kelley Review of Atlas Shrugged Part 1, the film
Submitted by The Atlas Society on Fri, 2011-02-25 20:26
Review of Atlas Shrugged Part 1, the film
“Midas Mulligan,” says the shadowy figure who accosts the prominent banker in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
“Someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy.”
So begins Atlas Shrugged Part I, the independent adaptation by “The Strike” Productions, scheduled for theatrical release April 15, 2011.
Ever since the project launched last April, skeptics have wondered how a film with a limited budget of $10 million, rushed production schedule, and lack of big-name talent could possibly do justice to the novel. Over a thousand pages long, with an intricate plot, epic scope, multi-layered mystery, a hero who does not appear until the final third of the story, and a complex philosophical theme, Atlas Shrugged has posed an insurmountable challenge to film-makers. The streets of Hollywood are littered with the ashes of prior efforts, some with much larger budgets.
The skeptics are wrong. The completed film was shown today for the first time in a private screening. It is simply beautiful. With a screenplay faithful to the narrative and message of the novel, the adaptation is lushly produced. The acting, cinematography, and score create a powerful experience of the story.
Taylor Schilling is riveting as Dagny Taggart, the woman who manages the Taggart Transcontinental rail system with intelligence and courage while fighting interference from the president of the company, her incompetent brother James (Matthew Marsden), and his political cronies. Schilling is well-matched with Grant Bowler as steel-maker Hank Rearden. As the story opens, Rearden has just started producing a new alloy he invented; and Dagny is his first customer. She wants to have rails of the metal to replace a branch line in Colorado, which is booming with business growth, led by oil-producer Ellis Wyatt, who is clamoring for better transportation for his product.
The film covers the first third of Rand’s novel, the triumphant story of building the “John Galt Line”—followed by a wave of government edicts that saddle the Line with impossible burdens, making the triumph a battle won in a losing war between producers and looters, and setting the stage for the later battles of Parts II and III. The film pulls no punches in this regard: Rand’s theme of makers vs. takers comes through loud and clear in scenes like the one in which Rearden is forced to sell off his satellite companies. Bowler captures the agony of a man having his life’s work torn from him.
The film does a credible job of portraying visually the world of Atlas Shrugged. Rand created a world in decline. Buildings and machinery are in disrepair, things break and don’t get fixed, businesses close. The economy is in a state of severe depression, and there is a depression of the spirit, too, a mood of despair, futility, and resignation captured in a popular expression: “Who is John Galt?”
Compounding the problem is the disappearance of highly talented people, prominent achievers at the peak of their success. That’s happening, of course, because John Galt is leading a strike of producers against the expropriation of their wealth—and against the principle that the need of others gives them a right to wealth, time, and effort of the productive. Though the strike remains largely off-stage in the film, Galt gets a more active role than in Part I of the novel. We don’t see his face, but we do see him recruiting strikers and we hear portions of the message. Unfortunately, those lines are not delivered with anything like the persuasive power that Rand’s philosophical recruiter must have.
The novel was set in an indefinite “day after tomorrow,” a world that is always just ahead of us, retreating like the horizon as we approach. The producers made the controversial decision to date the story in late 2016, presumably to tap into the many parallels to current events, and the establishing shots of cities, train wrecks, and government actions are arresting extrapolations of today’s actual world. These depressing scenes are offset by gorgeous scenes of triumph. The first run of the John Galt Line is a visual symphony (even with some ragged edges in the digital graphics).
For over half a century, Rand’s novel has been a lightning rod for controversy. It has attracted millions of devoted fans—and legions of hostile critics. A poor adaptation could be ignored by both sides. This adaptation can’t be ignored. It is way too good. It is going to turbocharge the debate over Rand’s vision of capitalism as a moral ideal. Whether you love the novel or hate it, Atlas Shrugged Part I is a must-see film.
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