- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Atlas Shrugs Back

The second installment of what will—Rand willing—become an epic trilogy based on the objectivist ur-text Atlas Shrugged is even more implausible than the first. By the conventional economics of the film industry “Atlas Shrugged Part II,” which opens to around 500 theaters this October, should never have been made.

Unless the movie in question involves simply tacking another numeral on to a field-tested franchise like “Scary Movie” or “Final Destination,” universal derision from critics and a box office loss are usually enough to count a sequel out. And yet here’s the next installment of “Atlas Shrugged” anyway, not limping straight to DVD but doubling the size of its theatrical release, having doubled its budget, added 20 minutes to its run-time, and taken on an entirely new cast.

To be sure, “Atlas Shrugged” is no mere movie. Its success or failure had very little to do with the script or acting and everything to do with the totemic power of Ayn Rand to the movement right. When I asked producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro about the poor ticket sales and bad reviews, they pointed out its respectable DVD sales and slow-burning success among grassroots activists, for whom the movie represents a concise but powerful defense of capitalism. Playing to their strengths for the release of Part II, they’ve marketed the film through policy groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. With cameos from Sean Hannity and Grover Norquist, and Teller (a libertarian, some might be surprised to know), “Atlas Shrugged” must be the first Hollywood franchise to be marketed primarily to the Citizens United audience.

In an interview at the Americans for Tax Reform office, Kaslow explained the strategy, “What we’ve found in going forward with part two is that these groups are embracing us even more than what we experienced in part one. Whether that’s because this election is at hand and they feel that this film and message is something that will help them in their cause, or now they’re just more comfortable coming out and supporting the film now that it’s not an unknown commodity. It’s a natural way for us to market.

Advertisement

“Rather than going for this shotgun approach more in line with what studios do that’s very expensive, we have a pretty good idea where our market is and who’s interacting with those people, so that means utilizing social media, online technologies, and other inexpensive modes of communication. We’re approaching those particular groups to see if they have an interest in helping us generate community-level support for the film, and a lot of the groups are saying ‘absolutely.’”

Despite its marketing “Atlas Shrugged Part II isn’t exactly a movement propaganda film; Aglialoro speaks of the “fear” in the Republican Party to “embrace capitalism.” He sees Paul Ryan’s attempt to distance himself from Rand as a capitulation, though a necessary one. “I think the real Paul Ryan would be the Paul Ryan that spoke at the Atlas Society in 2005 and said he had given books away, applauded what she did, and that he believes in a moral basis for capitalism. I believe that’s what he believes, but for some reason there is this hesitancy of accepting Ayn Rand.”

There are certainly things to admire about Rand’s thinking—if not her writing—especially on the right, but as I’ve documented [1], rigid adherence to her philosophy can lead to some pretty wacky ideas. Her foreign policy views were incoherent, for example, and she famously believed in lifetime intellectual property terms. These are government-enforced monopolies, which she opposed in every other form. To Rand, this was a natural extension of an individual’s right to reap the proceeds of one’s mental labors. (Taken to its logical conclusion, a society based on this understanding of intellectual property would be even less innovative than 20th-century Japan or contemporary China, ‘looter’ economies whose industrial development is largely based on IP theft.)

Since heroine Dagny Taggart (played by Samantha Mathis, replacing the more fetching Taylor Schilling from part one) is the embodiment of Rand’s philosophy, she behaves more like a Randian hero and less like the transportation executive she is. If you were a COO and were offered the patent for a cold fusion device, you would be stupid and negligent to turn it down. Dagny does, with some accompanying platitude about never accepting the fruits of another man’s labor.

The fact that she’s thinking about her individualist principles when she enters the presence of what would be mankind’s greatest invention in history demonstrates one of the bigger problems with Rand, and one of the challenges to communicating her novels onscreen: The things the characters are doing and the things they’re saying often bear only the slightest relation to one another. It’s as if each one is a floating ball of rational self-interest that happened to alight on this mortal coil to start a transportation company and expound on the virtues of “trading value for value.”

For example, a wedding reception is a poor place for a speech about the origin of money. If you don’t understand why that might be inappropriate, you might be an objectivist. Francisco D’Anconio’s (Esai Morales) exposition is as awkward onscreen as it would be in real life. Aglialoro admits to the difficulty of translating Rand’s highly philosophical prose. “Let me tell you, I went painstakingly through, trying to get conversational language from the poetic, elegant language that she put in the book,” he told TAC. “Take a look at the money speech, six pages, and script your own minute-and-a-half, two-minute scene.”

Asked whether he has any regrets about the lack of continuity between the casts—part three will likely be another mulligan—Aglialoro demurred, “If it was just a long chick flick I’d say we have to have the same actors. Or you could name a hundred other plots or stories. But this is about the celebration of Ayn Rand’s ideas and her message. … It’s not about the actors per se. In retrospect, I’m kind of happy it’ll be that way. I don’t want to condemn an actor to be typecast from one Ayn Rand role and that’s it, for good or bad, left or right-wing. I think it frees the story from just an actor to her message.”

In other words, he’s a true believer, having been “zapped”—his word—in the early ‘80s after reading The Virtue of Selfishness. “Seriously, I mean zapped, you are literally stunned. You have a vision that you are allowed to live for yourself. These thoughts, that I should have given more money in the basket at church, or I should have done this or should have done that or I could have done more. And I’m not taking away the elegance of benevolence. I think those that satisfy themselves first in life, like the woman with her kid on the airplane, with the oxygen mask—she puts the mask on herself first, then she saves her child. You’ve got to sculpt your own vision for your own life, and then passionately pursue whatever it is you want to do.”

Aglialoro’s insistence on being faithful to Rand was a condition of the million-plus dollar deal [2] he made with her legal and intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff for the rights to the movie, so maybe it’s more of a transposition than an adaptation. It’s not like the filmmakers do anything interesting in terms of storytelling or visual style—the aesthetic is a weird mash-up of steampunk and retrofuturism, I guess because both go well with trains, and its epic pretensions remove any responsibility to surprise the viewer.

Ultimately “Atlas Shrugged Part II” is a didactic film, so in the interest of filling the critic’s explanatory role, here is a brief rundown of its main assertions and some thoughts on each:

Wealth is good, except when it comes from political connections – James Taggart is the playboyish CEO of Taggart Transcontinental, whose dealings with his political allies lead to the closure of the John Galt line, and to the embodiment of the second half of that maxim. But show me a billionaire who isn’t a crony capitalist in some form; people who treat Rand as revelation seem unaware of the fact that real-life wealth creators are never as scrupulous as Randian heroes. Also, an epic story or comprehensive philosophy communicating that crony capitalism is wrong is overkill.

Redistribution is immoral — One of the more depraved things about the slow-motion collapse of the European Union is the troubling tendency of some commentators to see debts and deficits in moral terms. As a nation with $16 trillion in debt, we get a lot of that too. It’s difficult to fit a world of fiat money and central banking into the moral universe of Ayn Rand, though she was against both in general. For example, does pursuing inflationary policies designed to stimulate investment–and benefit investors–mean the poor, whose buying power is being hollowed out, have some claim? Chalk it up to the hubris of governments who claim the right to dictate value, but I’ve never been able to square this.

The wealthy will eventually get sick of being pushed around — … and will secede [3], potentially taking out the rest of society when they go. This is a pretty good metaphor for widespread anxiety on the right that we’re close to some kind of breaking point. Atlas Shrugged offers an eschatology to this narrative. It’s a revenge fantasy for people who hate taxes. Unfortunately, again, the real-life wealth creators are far more adept at manipulating government power to maintain their position, and the status quo is more resilient than anyone expects.

Bottom line: If you’re preaching to the flock, this choirboy expects a better sermon.

Jordan Bloom is the Associate Editor of TAC. Follow him on Twitter [4].

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Atlas Shrugs Back"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 28, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

Reading Rand as an adolescent is exciting for the contrarian ideas mixed with the brave and nobel.

As an adult, it is as stiff an unrealistic ideology as anything relentlessly soviet that she escaped from.

#2 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 28, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

I agree with Fran Macadam. To that I would add: As a young man I was not capable of recognizing a novel-length straw man gambit for what it was. With friends like that, capitalism doesn’t need enemies.

#3 Comment By vikingls On September 29, 2012 @ 1:02 am

I have trouble thinking of a more purely demonic philosophy than objectivism other than acual Satanism which drew heavily on Rand. If you give your heart to Jesus and your head to Ayn Rand something is amiss.

#4 Comment By Larry Misch On September 29, 2012 @ 5:14 am

For better or worse, you cannot control the masses. If the masses decide they don’t want uncontrolled capitalism, and, democratic venues of change don’t work well enough to suit them, they’ll take it down and hang the fat cats on lampposts in the city street. I hear some people saying: “Since China is doing so well, Communism is starting to look pretty good”. Communism? Well go figure, but there you have it.

#5 Comment By Cliff On September 29, 2012 @ 6:42 am

I’ve never read Rand but my brother did when we were teenagers. What struck me as odd, and wrong, in her thought as transmitted by my brother was the idea that the rich are constitutionally more capable than ordinary folk. I think that they are less capable, having relied on the crutch of their wealth all their lives. Can you picture Mitt Romney washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom? Maybe he could do it — badly — but he would hate it much more than I do.

When the plebs seceded, the patricians found that they couldn’t live without them, and had to give in (early Roman history). If the patricians seceded, the result would be the same.

#6 Comment By Uncle Vanya On September 29, 2012 @ 9:32 am

No real philosopher would have the temerity to call his school of thought “objectivism.” Even a bright 13 year old knows that his view of the world will be colored by his personal history and experience.

Frau Rand should have made cartoons instead of scribbling out “novels.” That was the metier, for which we can now see, she was really destined.

#7 Comment By Rebreh On September 29, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

I actually enjoyed Atlas Shrugged as a good piece of fiction but I never held it in awe as some sort of gospel or revelation. One main reason is that a core of her philosophy requires a perfect human in all aspects of life. Her hereos never faltered or had to make a tough moral decision, they were immune from this. She basically took the “ubersmench” and, rather than placing him/her in a world without objective values, made him/her some sort of remenant, bringing back to the world values that were already apparent.

Contrast this with their foils: mainly comprised of liberals, unions, religious leaders, and the poor (well those who don’t accept their lot). All are stock characters who lack any sort of complexity. So you wanna help the poor by raising taxes? You must have low self esteem and want to see society crumble. You believe in God? Well you are secretly trying to make everyone poor and dumb.

Maybe the reason why I found “Anthem” to be her master work is because is its short length and its parrable-like nature. As a parrable, it allows for shorter prose and each character is allowed to embody one or two stronger traits. Plus, Rand got to avoid complexity and empathy, both of which she tended to ignore.

#8 Comment By Ellis Weiner On September 29, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

Readers who made it through Atlas Shrugged, or who seek a more palatable alternative to reading it at all, will enjoy this:

[5]

#9 Comment By jamie On September 29, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

Most interesting part of your interview:

In other words, he’s a true believer, having been “zapped”—his word—in the early ‘80s after reading The Virtue of Selfishness. “Seriously, I mean zapped, you are literally stunned. You have a vision that you are allowed to live for yourself. These thoughts, that I should have given more money in the basket at church, or I should have done this or should have done that or I could have done more.”

You read a lot of Objectivist conversion stories like this. Rand must be very appealing to young people that feel extremely put-upon, by overbearing parents, by religion (he brought up the collection plate, not me), by guilt. Objectivism gives you a way of relieving it. If you come from a very tight-knit community where everyone leans on each other, where no one ever pursued their dreams because of the demands of family or community, and non-conformity, let alone individualism was sneered at, I suppose I’d be receptive to Rand, too. Ayn Rand is certainly much more attractive intellectually than “clinging to guns and religion,” and lo and behold, there’s a political party for me AND the bitter clingers!

I don’t really find Rand’s ideas to be much of a revelation, I just never had the experience of feeling like I must help others, it was never this burden I had to carry lest I was evil. It was never something I felt like I had to escape.

#10 Comment By Muggles On September 29, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

While the relgiously inclined will demonize Rand, preferring comfortable superstition, her ideas resonate today like no other (that isn’t based on pure faith). True, she was over the top, and not quite as original as some would have it, but reality is stranger than even her fiction. The AS movies may not be great art, but they represent ideas which can’t be merely dismissed by statists of various stripes.

#11 Comment By David J. White On September 29, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

When the plebs seceded, the patricians found that they couldn’t live without them, and had to give in (early Roman history). If the patricians seceded, the result would be the same.

Amen. Read The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie (made into a movie in the 1950s with Kenneth More).

#12 Comment By libertarian jerry On September 29, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

Despite her shortcomings,Ayn Rand,with her novel Atlas Shrugged,left us several lessons that travel well through time. Especially for Conservatives and Libertarians. !st.lesson is that one should not be ashamed or have to apologize for being successful in life. As long as your wealth is earned in the “hands off” free market or even inherited whats yours is yours. It doesn’t belong to the State or “society” or “the people” or the “wealth of the nation.” It belongs to you. In other words, one shouldn’t feel guilty about achievement. Guilt is one of the weapons used by collectivists and demagogues throughout history to humble achievers and to gain power. 2nd. The mind of man creates the advances in society that allow for the improved standards of living for us all. That unless that mind is allowed to function freely mankind’s progress will stagnate. 3rd. The State is an institution that has limited,but important,functions. But it is not up to the State to solve social/economic problems. When the State does involve itself in running people’s lives only bad things can happen. 4th.and probably most important,man is a creature unto himself. He may live in something called society but he is his own man not a sacrificial animal. Of course,we are all individuals and as individuals we have a responsibility not to violate the rights of other individuals. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand had many lectures on many subjects. To name a few: money,ethics,honesty,hard work and so forth. But the one lesson of Atlas Shrugged and other novels such as 1984 and Brave New World is that the dire predictions of the future fate of mankind often comes to pass. And many of the predictions of Atlas Shrugged are happening today over 50 years after first being published. Yes,one can poke holes in Ayn Rand’s philosophy,that’s easy. But one cannot deny that what she predicted is now coming to pass in our time. And to those who ignore her prophesies they should do so at their peril.

#13 Comment By Rich Hoffman On September 29, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

As to one billionaire that is not a crony capitalist I would say George Lucas. I would say that Lucas is just the kind of person Ayn Rand was writing about. Rand isn’t writing about how the world is, she is writing about the way she thinks the world should be. As to why people enjoyed the book more when they were younger than when they are older, it is because in maturity we make concessions, and that is not always a good thing. A wrong idea cannot be made correct just because everybody thinks something is correct. Socialism is a failure, and our lives are seething with it. Most people have so much of it in their lives they can’t see anything different. But that does not make Ayn Rand wrong, bad, or somehow immature. It just means that too many people in society have been willing to accept philosophies that they shouldn’t have, out of the laziness of not thinking things through. ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is a great piece of literature. It’s on par with ‘War and Peace,’ ‘Gone with the Wind,’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It is a great literary undertaking that has been very successful. If filmmakers can make another ‘Hang Over II’ movie, then its OK to have an ‘Atlas Shrugged Part II’ movie. There is an audiance for it, but there are people who won’t like it, because as adults, they have simply made too many concessions in their lives to enjoy a film that is about a superhero in John Galt who refuses to bend even a little, and fears nothing. In a world of fearful people, it is understandable that those people will not enjoy a strong character like John Galt. For those people they can go see ‘Magic Mike.’

#14 Comment By James Harker On September 29, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

Ayn Rand was an amoral sociopath. The evidence for this conclusion is overwhelming.

[6]

It is comforting to know that Rand’s narrow minded, narcissistic worshipers now feel compelled to use low-grade propaganda films “crafted” by television directors to sell her “ideas”. Judging by the trailers they may have succeeded in creating a new film genre: Capitalist Porn.

I am always amused and frustrated by so-called “individualists” of the intellectual class like Rand who argue for unregulated freedom and Social Darwinism. They do so under the assumption that the “state” – which they abhor – will protect them from Darwinian physical violence at the hands of the “weak” and “inferior” majority whom they believe it is their right to exploit and abuse. Ayn Rand and her ilk wouldn’t last one second when the bricks and ball bats came out…and they know it. The Randians would be the first to cry for state assistance in the form of police and military protection: “Don’t let scummy hoi polloi harm us. Our minds are too big to flail!”

Ayn Rand wasn’t a philosopher; she was a vicious, self-serving dogmatist that now appeals to indolent narcissists who, ironically, are looking for someone to follow.

#15 Comment By Scott On September 29, 2012 @ 11:52 pm

Have any of you detractors ever read Rand? James Harker, you’re responding to what you’ve been told about Rand and Atlas – what you’ve read from other detractors. If you would only stop and take a moment to read Atlas you would find that Rand advocated only for the rights of the individual – both rich and poor – wealth was irrelevant. As a matter of fact, in the novel, villains and heroes were both rich and poor. Atlas is about Right vs. Wrong – not Rich vs. Poor.

#16 Comment By libertarian jerry On September 30, 2012 @ 5:19 am

James Harker….Your comments are typical of the Cultural Marxist methods of discussing a subject. That is don’t discuss or debate rationally,point by point, the oppositions philosophy or world view but attack the person on a personal basis by calling them names and making wild unsubstantiated accusations about their personality. Sol Alinsky would be proud of you.

#17 Comment By MikeS On September 30, 2012 @ 9:02 am

As products of evolution, humans (and others) came to be self-interested — that’s the only way to get our genes preserved to the next generation. Civilization began when we acquired a conscience and realized that we should think of others also. For normal people our struggle is to not to let our inborn tendency to self-interest overwhelm our moral sense (in our Christian tradition, loving one’s neighbor as one[s self). Reading Rand is exhilirating because her theory gives you permission to be selfish and not care too much about others. That appeals to some college-age people, but with maturity, or rededication to one’s religious tradition, it loses its appeal.

#18 Comment By Jack Tracey On September 30, 2012 @ 10:22 am

Never read Rand. Not sure I want to. I must say I do find fascinating the ebb and flow of the importance of individualism and collective responsibility in the worldview of the Conservative Leftists and Progressive Leftists who write and comment on this site. It would seem individual rights end when an individual’s behavior is not palatable to those that know better.

Libertarian Jerry,
You’re obviously a fan, and you do a good job of summarizing the value of Rand’s work. I’m afraid it won’t be in my reading chair anytime soon, though. I’m back to scripture these days, and there are only so many minutes in a day.

#19 Comment By Scott On September 30, 2012 @ 10:32 am

And again… MikeS – “Reading Rand is exhilirating because her theory gives you permission to be selfish and not care too much about others.” Reading what Rand exactly? Which book are you referring to and what part of the book? What the hell are you people talking about?

#20 Comment By Rebreh On September 30, 2012 @ 10:44 am

I always felt that Brave New World is a better representation of what modern America is like that Atlas Shrugged. Take you soma, stop complaining, and ignore your government. Everything is fine

#21 Comment By Sir Oinksalot On September 30, 2012 @ 11:05 am

Like many commentators, Jordan Bloom oversimplifies, distorts, and misrepresents the message of Atlas Shrugged. What I found particularly disappointing, though, is his implication that one’s success in business is inversely proportional to one’s moral rectitude, e.g.,



This view is not only negative and distasteful, but it is also contrary to the founding principles of the USA, because it holds that success is a product not of hard work and entrepreneurship, but of manipulation and cronyism. Further, a corollary of this view is that failure is a hallmark of virtue–an inversion of reality that strikes me as neither American nor conservative.

#22 Comment By delia ruhe On September 30, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

Ayn Rand is perfect for a culture of Peter Pans, and also for a culture suffering from a toxic overdose of right-wing Christianity.

To me, she seems like someone with too little knowledge of economics and finance, and with an oversized axe to grind against Soviet communism.

#23 Comment By Glaivester On September 30, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

I hear some people saying: “Since China is doing so well, Communism is starting to look pretty good”. Communism? Well go figure, but there you have it.

China has been moving away from Communism since the mid-70s.

Three things not mentioned here: (1) The reason initially for making the first movie was because the guy with the rights to the movie would have lost them had he not made one. So there is a good reason for him to make the movie even absent success. (2)It should be pointed out that this is less a sequel, in the normal sense of the term, than the second part of a story that has been split in three (similar to Kill Bill, except that this film is being made in installments rather than just released that way), so the desire to complete the film is understandable. I would assume that the first film really cannot stand on its own, i.e. the way that Back to the Future of Star Wars can. (3) One of the problems with making an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is that Rand did not want the story altered at all, which is really difficult to do when transferring media.

As for Rand, my thought is that she had a few really great ideas and hated a lot of the right people, so she is useful in particular doses even if one does not embrace her philosophy.

Final thought: L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach would make a really fun movie if someone wanted to make it.

#24 Comment By John E_o On October 1, 2012 @ 10:08 am

I would say that Lucas is just the kind of person Ayn Rand was writing about.

A Randian hero would never re-edit his movie to make it more compatible with public tastes.

A Randian George Lucas would have said “Han Solo shot first and that’s that.”

#25 Comment By Rob in CT On October 1, 2012 @ 11:54 am

The first two comments nailed it.

And yes, I’ve read Rand. Atlas Shrugged, Anthem and The Fountainhead.

#26 Comment By James Harker On October 1, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

To Scott I say, yes, I have read Rand. I found her non-fiction repellant 25 years ago and still do. The “rights of the individual” where contemplated by Rand in an amoral vacuum.

To libertarian jerry I say, I have neither the time nor an interest in addressing Rand’s ideas “point by point” in this forum. As for discussing Rand “rationally”, my comments were, by definition, rational; that is, “of or requiring the use of the mind.” You might consider taking on my quite limited critique “point by point” (as you insist I should have Rand’s) rather than merely labeling me a “Cultural Marxist”, whatever you think that is.

Have either of you watched the Mike Wallace interview with Rand?

[7]

What did Bill Buckley (who Rand thought “too intelligent to believe in God”) have to say about Rand and Atlas Shrugged:

[8]

But it is the late Christopher Hitchens’s brief comments that get right to the point and render superfluous extensive debate on the value of Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” in Atlas Shrugged:

[9]

The last thing mankind needs is a philosophy of selfishness.

#27 Comment By TWylite On October 1, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

John E_0: You are almost correct. A Randian George Lucas would have written a 979 page tome called “The Virtue Of Shooting First”.

#28 Comment By Jim On October 2, 2012 @ 3:50 pm

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” – John Rogers

#29 Comment By David Naas On October 4, 2012 @ 8:53 am

Alas, as the commentariat demonstrates, teading Ayn Rand before the ‘nads have cooled has the same caustic effect as reading Nietzsche at the same age. I have a certain fondness for Nietzsche — at least he had a sense of the absurd, which no good Randite can admit to. Murray Rothbard had perhaps the most devastating critique, after Buckley, of Rand I ever read. And my good, devout Baptist friend still thinks Rand is thumbs up.

#30 Comment By Boskley On October 9, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

It cracks me up how worked up the collectivists get when they talk about Ayn Rand. How painful it must be for them to reflect on ideas of virtue when they live such immoral lives. Freedom, rational thought, individualism, capitalism, morality . . . seriously folks, how can any moral person see these things as bad?