Monday, July 4, 2011
Stiff as Rearden Metal: Atlas Shrugged: Part I
Few novels have ever given me greater enjoyment than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. And, yes, that says as much about me as it says about the novel – but doesn’t it always? I first encountered Rand’s 1957 opus, along with The Fountainhead, when I was in college, reading it for fun, intrigued mostly by its length and narrative subject matter, with only a hint of interest in its underlying philosophy. I’m smarter now, more aware, but I wasn’t stupid then. Atlas Shrugged didn’t win me over by romanticizing my worldview. It hooked me through a story that’s packed with melodrama, mystery, discovery, betrayal and passion. It enchanted me with its epic imagery: decaying cities and a mountainous utopia; westward trains and a lone figure hiding in the shadows. It tantalized me with characters who desperately try to adhere to their own moral codes, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, regardless of the toll. Objectivism? It was a factor in as much as it affected how the characters behaved. And while Rand may have intended otherwise, I never felt the novel demanded my obedience – not even when John Galt delivers his ideological speech that lasts 55 pages, although admittedly I only skimmed that part. I loved reading Atlas Shrugged because it’s a good yarn, full of action, dialogue and evocative settings. I loved it, in other words, because reading it felt a lot like watching a movie.
That’s why it’s too bad that the film version is paper thin. Adapted for the screen by John Aglialoro (also the film’s producer) and Brian Patrick O’Toole, and directed by TV actor Paul Johansson, who also appropriately plays Galt, mysteriously pulling the strings from the shadows, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is inept in almost every way a movie can be. The acting is flat and tone deaf: although Taylor Schilling has a cold allure that makes her often robotic delivery somewhat appropriate for the often frosty and always calculating Dagny Taggert, Grant Bowler (as Hank Rearden) and Matthew Marsden (as James Taggert) give the oversized yet underwhelming performances that you’d expect to find in a low budget soap opera pilot. Speaking of low budget, many of the sets are unconvincingly fabricated: the walls of mighty Rearden Steel look as if they’d topple over if you leaned against them, and scenes inside the Taggerts’ polished-wood offices are dominated by a hollow ambient hum that made me think of a Brock Landers flick. Which brings us to the sound design: in one scene in which Dagny’s assistant stands mostly still in the background, we can hear his dress shirt gently rustling against his suit; nuff said. To go on would be to belabor the point. Johansson’s film is so inert and frequently cheap looking that it’s impossible to take seriously, which makes either embracing or rejecting it based on its underlying philosophies a foolish exercise. Not that it’s kept people from doing just that.
When I saw the film more than two months ago, I was 10 minutes away from the theater when I read via Twitter that Aglialoro had caved in the face of overwhelmingly negative reviews and decided not to finance the final two films of the series. Just this week, however, with Part I set for release on DVD, Aglialoro confirmed that the next two installments are indeed slated for production, with the release of Part II strategically timed for 2012, in the hope that it will strike a chord with an increasingly dissatisfied electorate. A common thread in much of the discussion around the film thus far is the misguided implication that the quality of the film itself has anything to do with the value of its message or the nobility (or lack thereof) of its source material. No doubt, Rand’s philosophies could have something to do with the film’s profit margin, which hinges on the ability to lure a target demographic, but the film’s failure as art and its performance at the box office neither validate nor invalidate Rand’s novel as a work of literature or the ideologies that are embedded within it. (Plenty of lousy movies have been made from great novels, and vice versa.) Which leads me here: Those who have only read of Rand’s novels might be surprised to learn how unobtrusive those ideologies can be within her fictional narratives. In that respect Johansson’s film is quite faithful to its source. Does Part I reflect the values of Objectivism? Undoubtedly. But like Rand’s novel – that repetitive 55-page speech aside – Johansson’s film actually isn’t an endless parade of soap-box-perched characters spouting Objectivist philosophy. And just like it’s possible to revel in the twisted ethics of the Corleones without treating The Godfather saga like a religious text, so we can also dabble in Rand’s Objectivist drug recreationally, without becoming addicts.
Of course, you’d actually have to read Atlas Shrugged to know that, and I suspect that many critics of Objectivism haven’t bothered. Film fans should know as well as anyone that sometimes the most inaccurate descriptions of a piece of art come from its creator and/or its most ardent supporters, and that rule applies to Atlas Shrugged. Without Rand there to describe it, the narrative is capable of nuance. It leaves room for ambiguity. It gives us characters we can admire, despise, sympathize with and pity in equal measure. Just because Rand, like so many artists, might have intended a universal meaning or effect doesn’t mean our response needs to be so rigid. From Michael Corleone to Daniel Plainview to Anton Chigurh, from T.E. Lawrence to Timothy Treadwell to Jesus Christ, and so on, some of the most fascinating characters are those who go to extremes for their beliefs – sometimes with difficulty and sometimes with ease, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. To see Atlas Shrugged only through the filter of its narrow Objectivist following as an ideological exercise is to limit its ability to be universally compelling as human drama. (Furthermore, critics of Objectivism often overlook that many of the selfish acts of the characters in Atlas Shrugged either create a public good or sidestep corruption, even if those weren’t the motivators for action. Not to mention that many of these characters demonstrate a very basic selfishness that fairly reflects the way most of us go about our lives. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
All of that said, what’s particularly disappointing about this film is that it fails to capture the momentous tone of the novel in a way that can stoke the ideological fires of its target audience or keep its non-Objectivist audience intrigued. There’s one terrific shot in the film in which Rearden watches the first batch of Rearden Metal being turned into train rail – his gaze intense, his conviction palpable – but the rest of the picture is an emotional flat line. The affair between Rearden and Dagny is especially bungled, as it lacks the very thing that makes it so compelling in the book: the collision of their intense desire not to need someone else against their equally intense need for intimacy with one another. Instead of a Dangerous Liaisons-esque internal tug-of-war between yearning and individualistic ego, Johansson’s film gives us a guy in a loveless marriage banging the hot chick who appreciates his genius – ho-hum. Critics of Rand’s novels (never mind her philosophies) often point to the ordinariness of her prose, her clumsy description of action, her overuse of archetypal characters, her penchant for melodrama and her inability to use any tool other than a sledgehammer to drive home her points. But make no mistake, Rand had vision. What any adaptation of her work requires is a similar cinematic vision, and the conviction of Rand’s heroes to never cut corners. It needs a filmmaker who can turn the laying of the John Galt Line into something with the frontier romanticism of Days of Heaven, rather than the staid imagery of nightly news B-roll. By investing millions of his own fortune to get these movies made, Aglialoro has demonstrated his respect for Rand’s work. But in doing so he launched a series with the myopic vision of a follower.