Atlas Shrugged: A Hymn to the Overdog

April 27, 2011

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Atlas Shrugged: A Hymn to the Overdog

Atlas Shrugged: Part I is the most universally despised movie of 2011, but I liked it. Critics hate this adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1957 cult novel for predictable ideological reasons, while Randites are embarrassed that their exalted capitalist system failed to pony up the munificent financing necessary to give Rand’s doorstop novel the blockbuster treatment they feel it deserves.

Instead of Angelina Jolie as heroine Dagny Taggart (as was rumored in 2008), this adaptation stars Taylor Schilling and other TV types. The film was rushed into principal photography on June 13, 2010, just two days before producer John Aglialoro’s 18-year option ran out.

I’ve never read Rand’s novel about a dystopian near-future in which the unappreciated capitalists who keep the world running go on strike. And from what my wife tells me of her attempt to grind through the book in college, it sounds pretty dire: “Rand lauds the competent, but she herself wasn’t a competent novelist.” Thus, I walked into the theater with negligible expectations, wondering whether it would be ethical to walk out early and still review it.

“Rand is famous for being anti-government, so it’s intriguing to see how much she despised corporate oligarchs equipped merely with deft lobbyists.”

To my surprise, I quite enjoyed Atlas Shrugged. Although the story is a hymn to the overdog, this low-budget movie has underdog appeal. I soon started to root for the plucky filmmakers to pull off their high-wire act of making a movie that’s distinctive—not distinguished, but still very 1957 in texture—without having anywhere near enough of the dollars that Rand idolized.

Have you noticed how few prestige movies these days are shot in midsummer when scenery is at its best? For example, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit was a fine film, but it would have looked much less gloomy if filmed in June. Movie people like to send audiences the message: “You can tell by the dreary weather that we didn’t hire cheap television talent during their summer hiatus.” Well, Atlas Shrugged could only afford TV people on summer break, and guess what? The scenes of Dagny’s new super-train roaring through the sunny Rocky Mountains at 250 MPH are glorious.

Atlas Shrugged: Part I is nominally set in 2016, but the story is a pastiche of mid-twentieth-century concerns. Unfortunately, little in the movie will make much sense to the viewer who doesn’t possess at least a passing familiarity with some now mostly forgotten American economic history. If you do, Rand’s humorless plot still won’t seem terribly logical, but at least you can see where she’s coming from.

The America of 2016 is in a 1930s-style depression, both economic and moral. As during the first two years of the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt borrowed Mussolini’s corporatist economics, government and business conspire to reduce the “over-competition” blamed for the downturn. Established moguls ostracize entrepreneurs.

With the price of gasoline at $37.50 per gallon, air travel is practically extinct, making the economy once again dependent upon railroads. Oilman Ellis Wyatt has discovered a vast new field in Colorado, but he has to ship his oil to market via railroad, the pipeline apparently having been disinvented.

Today, oil and rail don’t seem to go together any more naturally than oil and water. Yet many in Rand’s 1957 audience would have remembered the vast controversy ignited by muckraker Ida M. Tarbell’s 1904 The History of the Standard Oil Company, which revealed that John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly forced railroads to pay Standard a “drawback” on every barrel of competitors’ oil they transported. (In 2007’s There Will Be Blood, the cozy arrangement between Rockefeller and the railroads drives Daniel Day-Lewis’s ornery oilman to build his own pipeline over the mountains.)

Wyatt is dependent upon America’s last privately owned railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, run by feckless scion James and his dynamic sister Dagny. Poor Wyatt’s oil shipments routinely derail because Taggart’s rails haven’t been upgraded in a century. James assumes that’s not his problem because he’s well-connected in Washington. Dagny, however, bets the company by giving a huge contract for laying new tracks to Hank Rearden, the handsome inventor of Rearden Metal, a sort of proto-titanium.

The steel companies mount a scare campaign to ban Rearden’s unwelcome competition, but Dagny and Hank demonstrate Rearden Metal’s reliability by zooming across their new 955-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge. Soon, the triumphant twosome are personally laying pipe.

Then some more stuff happens, but Part I wraps up in a painless 97 minutes, with most of Rand’s rants left out.

Rand is famous for being anti-government, so it’s intriguing to see how much she despised corporate oligarchs equipped merely with deft lobbyists. The obvious analogy to the Wall Streeters whom the feds bailed out in 2008 may account for the renewed popularity of Rand’s book in this Tea Party era, but terribly few politicians have yet dared to take on crony capitalism.

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