If you ask the average film critic about the new movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” they will tell you it is a horrible movie. If you ask the average conservative or libertarian they will tell you it is a great movie. Objectively, it is a mediocre movie at best. Subjectively, it is one of the best mediocre movies you’ll ever see.
And of course this is based entirely on the subject. If it has become a Hollywood cliché to make movies about greedy capitalists vs. benevolent government, Rand’s famous novel radically restructures this pedestrian narrative. “Atlas” is about greedy government that conspires with greedy capitalists to stop other greedy capitalists from making products which, incidentally, make them benevolent.
Confused? You should be.
By definition, a pure capitalist system consists of an actual free market in which investors are rewarded or punished based on their own level of risk without any promotion or protection from government. We generally do not have this type of true free market in the United States today.
What most Americans now call “capitalism” is actually crony capitalism or “corporatism,” in which big business conspires with big government to enrich an elite few at the expense of the many. The bank bailouts were a perfect example of this, in which bankers were reimbursed by the government after taking irresponsible risks. The risks taken produced the mortgage crisis, which was largely the result of a Federal Reserve that had artificially lowered the interest rate to such an abnormally low level that Americans were encouraged to buy homes they could not afford. For the poor and middle class, there was no bailout. For corporate CEOs, we privatized the profits and socialized the losses.
When attacking the supposed free market’s role in causing the financial crisis in his film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” liberal documentarian Michael Moore was asked by a college student why he called what was actually corporatism, “capitalism.” Moore conceded the point: “We don’t really have a free market. We don’t really have free enterprise.”
Rand would have agreed. Simply put, “Atlas” is about championing the creative talents and power of the individual over the often cumbersome and destructive demands of the collective—governmental, corporatist or otherwise. This is undoubtedly a right-wing sentiment and not surprisingly conservatives have applauded this movie as much as critics have panned it. Admittedly, the acting, cinematography and overall quality of Atlas Shrugged is not the greatest. But it’s also not the worst either. Therefore, if many conservatives’ hyper-enthusiasm for this movie is transparently ideological—is the same not possibly true of its critics’ harsh derision?
Compare Atlas Shrugged’s reception to James Cameron’s critically-acclaimed action fantasy film “Avatar.” Avatar was a big-budget popcorn movie similar to the 1996 aliens vs. earth flick “Independence Day.” Like Independence Day, Avatar received recognition for its groundbreaking special effects. But as a story, Avatar was mediocre at best. It was fun and entertaining, yes, but it was not artistically exceptional and it certainly didn’t deserve to be nominated for the Oscar for “Best Picture” in 2009.
At the Huffington Post, Michael Carmichael summarized why liberal Hollywood really thought Avatar was so fantastic: “In a nutshell, Avatar’s political message is: The American Military-Industrial Complex will utterly destroy the known universe.” Carmichael’s contention was backed up by the many critics who noted Cameron’s Iraq War allusions and Avatar’s not-so-subtle antiwar and anti-Bush themes.
As a conservative opponent of the Iraq War, I actually appreciated Cameron’s political message while admitting that Avatar, objectively, wasn’t that great a film. Many conservatives agreed. Many liberals didn’t.
And now the exact reverse is true concerning Atlas Shrugged. If you’re a film fan looking for a great movie—Atlas Shrugged probably isn’t it. If you’re a conservative looking for a great movie—Atlas Shrugged will likely be it. The mania is for the message, and conservatives should be no more hesitant in their enthusiasm for Ayn Rand’s anti-collectivism than liberals were for Cameron’s anti-Bushism. Indeed, if conservatives ran Hollywood instead of liberals—Atlas Shrugged might even be up for an Oscar.
But interestingly, where Avatar and Atlas actually agree brings up an important point I fear most liberals and conservatives will continue to miss: That the same military-industrial-complex liberals deplored in Avatar represents precisely the sort of corporatism Rand also deplores in Atlas Shrugged. Liberals hate that Rand attacks domestic socialism but would probably have admired her opposition to the Vietnam War. Conservatives applaud Rand’s attacks on domestic socialism but many still remain the strongest champions of foreign socialism—in the form of foreign aid, wars for profit, and overseas policies often based on corporate interests.
Rand, who was by no means a non-interventionist, nevertheless recognized that “Foreign policy is merely a consequence of domestic policy.” What many liberals consider good government is actually a welfare state, the constant failure of which perpetuates the rationale for its own existence. What many conservatives consider proper defense is actually nothing more than a warfare state, that’s not only every bit as unnecessary as the welfare state but the perpetuity of which is based on similar rationale. Wrote Rand: “Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by producing.”
Despite so much conservative rhetoric to the contrary, war without reason does not protect American freedom. It diminishes it. This is something Ayn Rand understood—and it is something any champion of individualism over collectivism should understand too.