Heroically Self-Interested Case File #4: Atlas Shrugged: Part I
When discussing Ayn Rand, it’s important to recall the historical and cultural forces that made her both one of our most controversial writers and a central inspiration to the most irritating people you went to college with. Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism can best be understood as an extreme response to the communism she escaped when she fled her native Russia for the United States—or more specifically, Hollywood, where she toiled as an extra, script-doctor, screenwriter, and costumer for folks like Cecil B. De Mille. Communism promised a utopian, egalitarian society, yet created only misery. It promised to replace the tyranny of the dictator with the benevolent reign of the common man, then elevated figures like Lenin and Stalin to the status of gods. Objectivism angrily defied the tenets of both communism and common morality. It was through-the-looking-glass time. Down was up. Up was down. In Rand’s newfangled way of thinking, selfishness, or at least rational self-interest, was no longer a terrible moral failing, but rather a great moral good. It was the mighty engine that powered the world.
In Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957 and adapted for the big screen this year, the richest and most powerful people in the world—the producers, the job creators, the titans of industry, motherfuckers with summer homes in Connecticut and models for mistresses—go on strike because they feel underappreciated. Think about that for a second. They feel underappreciated. They occupy the upper echelon of society, but for Rand, that isn’t not good enough. Not when there are so many mediocrities and sub-mediocrities pulling them down with their infernal demands to be treated with dignity and compassion.
A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged has long been both an irresistible and impossible proposition. For starters, there’s the book’s length: Atlas Shrugged runs well over a thousand pages. Even a greatly condensed adaptation was bound to stretch on interminably. If that weren’t forbidding enough, Atlas Shrugged’s plot revolves around fevered competition among competing railroad magnates in the near future. Seriously. Directed by One Tree Hill actor Paul Johansson as the first part of a planned trilogy adapting Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged: Part I works up a manly sweat trying and failing to make collusion among unscrupulous railroad companies the stuff of lurid, visceral fascination. It’s a film that requires the line “The consensus of the best metallurgical authorities are highly skeptical!” to be delivered breathlessly.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I’s opening reminded me, ironically, of one of those low-budget evangelical Christian movies in which undiscriminating C-list actors find themselves left behind after all their Jesus-loving pals are Raptured. Atlas Shrugged and Christian tribulation movies are both primarily works of proselytizing thinly masquerading as popular entertainment. Everything feels hopelessly ersatz and artificial. There’s an alternately tragic and comic gulf between their Herculean ambitions and their limited resources, creatively and commercially.
Atlas Shrugged Part I desperately wants to be a genuine Hollywood movie, just as badly as Christian filmmakers want to replicate the look, feel, and production values of their godless would-be peers/cultural enemies. It proves just as unsuccessful, yet Atlas Shrugged: Part I gets close enough for its efforts to be poignant, comic, and a little pathetic.
As with Christian tribulation movies, there is no place for nuance or understatement in Atlas Shrugged: Part I. We are not being seduced; we’re being sold with the hardest sell imaginable. Both films depict peculiar persecution fantasies in which the dominant ideologies of the day—Christianity and capitalism—are hounded relentlessly by the one-world-government brigade and the nefarious forces of encroaching socialism, respectively. These movies give victors an opportunity to feel like victims. What do you give a demographic that has everything? The righteous opportunity to feel like they have nothing, and like what little they have is on the verge of being taken away.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a film for the one-percenter in all of us. It’s bold and insane enough to propose that the problem with society isn’t that we reward the folks at the apex of the socioeconomic ladder disproportionately well, but rather that we don’t reward them enough. In the world of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, folks like Steve Jobs are wildly underappreciated by a world that would grind to a stop or descend into madness and anarchy without their ingenuity and creativity. It takes place in an alternate universe where the polarities have been reversed. The rich are now oppressed by the poor. The weak rule the strong. Concern for mankind has somehow curdled into something sinister, and ruthless self-interest has been promoted to the highest moral good.
The problem is that concern for one’s fellow man is such an inherent part of who we are as as Americans—and as human beings—that without it, Atlas Shrugged: Part I’s ostensible heroes seem alien, unable to comprehend the humanity of others. Rand doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. She seems deeply suspicious of emotions. In Rand’s universe, emotions make you weak, dependent upon others instead of an exemplar of heroic self-reliance.
Late in the film, hero Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) delivers a sneering account of a business that failed because “the company flattened the wage scale and paid everyone according to their needs, not according to their contributions.” Heroine Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) responds with the disgusted retort, “Why all these stupid altruistic urges? It’s not being charitable or fair. What is it with people today?”
Schilling can’t seem to understand how these “humans” think and feel, why they experience a strange thing called “empathy,” even when it flies in the face of their own noble and heroic self-interest. She appears flummoxed by what she sees as a surplus of stupid altruistic urges destroying society. Early in the film, Schilling’s brother (Matthew Marsden) tells her, “Other people are human. They’re sensitive. They can’t just devote their whole lives to metal and engines. You’ve never had any feelings. You’ve never felt a thing.” In any other film, being inhuman would register as a negative characteristic. Here, it’s a mark of heroism.
In order for Atlas Shrugged: Part I to work, it needs a protagonist who makes selfishness, self-absorption, and ruthless self-interest not only palatable, but sexy, fun, and irresistible. We should get a transgressive charge out of abandoning everything we’ve ever been told about the Golden Rule and serving our fellow man. Objectivism should be an invitation away from dreary old responsibility and toward fun and adventure. So why does Atlas Shrugged: Part I feel like a stern lecture? Why does it make being selfish and callous dreary and joyless? Why isn’t it any fun?
It doesn’t help that the film has loathsome leads who view the concept of fun with naked contempt, as the kind of thing the idiot masses might engage in to distract themselves from their miserable lives. In a performance that runs the gamut from stern to dour to grim to fiercely determined, Schilling plays the daughter of a prominent railroad magnate in a 2016 in which railroads are central to society’s functioning instead of an adorably old-fashioned way to travel. She wants to transform the railroad industry and help save capitalism by using a revolutionary new alloy created by Bowler’s renegade industrialist. Bowler is both a titan of industry and Schilling’s male counterpart, a cold, joyless, relentlessly driven capitalist who views the rest of humanity as, at best, a necessary evil.
In an exchange that says everything about Atlas Shrugged: Part I’s take on humanity, a millionaire playboy asks Bowler, “If it wasn’t for you, most of these people [Bowler’s employees and family] would be left helpless. Why are you willing to carry them?” Bowler responds, “Because they’re a bunch of miserable children trying to stay alive desperately and very badly.”
What an ugly and reductive way of seeing the world. Yet the film seems to share Bowler’s viewpoint. Atlas Shrugged: Part I’s deification of the individual is inherently rooted in contempt for the masses. At the heart of the film lies the romantic fantasy that without a handful of special people (let’s call them the one-percenters), we would be brought to a state of childlike helplessness. But the romance isn’t just undercut by the pervasive nastiness; it’s completely negated, leaving behind a film that wants to be passionate and engaged, but instead feels sterile.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I asks us to identify with characters whose moral code renders them not only foreign, but repellent. Everywhere our heroic protagonists go, they are confronted by a confederacy of dunces eager to pull them down to their animalistic level. Bowler and Schilling’s plan to utilize Bowler’s revolutionary new alloy runs into resistance from a sniveling cadre of utilitarianism-lovers led by Michael Lerner and Jon Polito, both of whom sink to the level of the material. The bad guys’ primary weapon is what’s described as an “anti-dog-eat-dog” bill that dictates, “Every member must subordinate their own interests for the collective needs of the railroad industry” in an attempt to keep Bowler and Schilling from destroying the competition with its superior product and technology.
Meanwhile, a mysterious figure whose trenchcoat and fedora lend him a distinct resemblance to McGruff The Crime Dog tracks down the most important members of society and encourages them to go on strike until society is able and willing to appreciate them and their contributions. The man in question is the purest manifestation of Rand’s philosophy, as well as a figure that has become synonymous with Objectivism: John Galt.
Who is John Galt? Here is how Galt (seen only in silhouette and played, in a M. Night Shyamalan-like display of grandiosity, by Johansson) describes himself to a banking executive he is about to take to a mysterious realm known as “Galt’s Gulch”: “Someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy.” Atlas Shrugged: Part I asks us to believe that those words could conceivably emerge from the mouth of a human being. Then again, I’m not entirely sure there are any human beings to be found in Atlas Shrugged: Part I. The characters are all empty symbols used to express a philosophy that grows less palatable and more unhinged with each passing scene.
Johansson communicates solely in bumper-sticker slogans and bite-sized nuggets of Objectivist philosophy, whether he’s luring a super-achiever to a mysterious aisle “that cultivates individual achievement” or ending the film with the following monologue:
My name is John Galt. I live in a place we call Atlantis. I think you’d fit in there. It’s a place where heroes live. And where those who want to be heroes live. The government we have there respects each of us as individuals and as producers. Actually, beyond a few courthouses, there’s not much of a government at all. Bottom line, Mr. Wyatt: If you’re weary of a government that refuses to limit its power over you, and if you’re ready at this moment to claim the moral right over your own life, then we should leave.
That final unadulterated blast of Objectivist philosophizing is intended as an irresistible invitation to escape this sad world of sub-mediocrity for a world of heroism, radical independence, and adventure. But Atlas Shrugged: Part I makes a terrible case for Objectivism. Its heroes register as villains, its villains seem like cartoons, and the whole unwieldy shebang feels like a narcissistic adolescent fantasy of cultural and moral superiority. Instead of Trojan-horsing a compelling moral philosophy inside a ripping yarn, Atlas Shrugged: Part I handcuffs amateurish, borderline-incoherent pulp to juvenile, unfeasible ideology. Not since Battlefield Earth has an act of cinematic devotion made a worse case for the ideology that inspired it.
Rand’s book and Atlas Shrugged: Part I are both swooning, asinine, empty-headed valentines to the unfettered free market and the wisdom of laissez-faire economics, so it’s exquisitely ironic that the free market failed Atlas Shrugged: Part I. Or maybe Atlas Shrugged: Part I failed the free market, since it grossed well under $5 million, far less than even its miniscule, radically scaled-down budget. Yet the filmmakers aren’t about to let the dictates of the free market quash their heroic future. In spite of Atlas Shrugged: Part I’s critical and commercial failure, a sequel is still apparently in the works. I don’t know whether to find the filmmakers’ bull-headedness foolish or heroic—though in the mixed-up world of Ayn Rand, those concepts tend to look an awful lot alike.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco