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.
“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, 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 TheVirtue 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 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, 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.