More than half a century after publication, and after years of talk about an Atlas Shrugged movie project, Ayn Rand’s best-selling novel finally hit the big screen – met with indifference by most critics, with excitement in libertarian and conservative circles.
Why now? Partly because the last two years have seen something of a Rand revival, based on the belief that the Atlas vision of a bleak, collectivism-ridden, freedom-stifling future America is a prophecy for the age of Obama.
Part of the problem lies with Atlas Shrugged itself. Contrary to her detractors’ claims, Rand was a writer of high and unique talent. Atlas is among the worst of her books. Most of the characters are either demigods or vermin. The plot suffocates under endless speechifying, with every point hammered over and over.
The film, which covers the first of the novel’s three parts, suffers from the same problems. It describes railway executive Dagny Taggart’s struggle to save the family business from assorted scoundrels, including her own brother, and of her romance with unhappily married industrialist Hank Rearden. It’s fairly standard prime-time soap material, except that the good guys rhapsodize about property rights, competence, and individual achievement, while the baddies babble about sensitivity, feelings, and helping the needy.
In this way, the movie plays to the worst caricature of Rand’s philosophy – as an excuse for vulgar materialism and greed unfettered by moral constraints. Rand also stresses and celebrates the spiritual aspects of economic creation – something the Atlas movie actually captures well in the scene in which Dagny and Hank ride a high-speed train on the rail line they have built.
However, Rand’s vision also has severe limitations, including her low regard for charity and family – two institutions most conservatives, and many libertarians, regard as essential complements to the free market. In pure form, her philosophy would work perfectly if people were never helpless and dependent on others through no fault of their own.
But there is a more serious problem with Ayn Rand – one that, unfortunately, makes her too good a fit for today’s political environment. She viciously demonizes the people and ideas she disagrees with, reducing them to grotesque caricatures.
The evil bureaucrats of Atlas Shrugged, for instance, argue that even when steel production is at disastrously low levels, Rearden can’t be allowed to produce too much of it since it would disadvantage other steel companies; or that, even if his new metal is perfectly safe, it would be “a social danger” because it is so superior to other products. Many Rand fans apparently believe that a world in which such arguments win the day – in which the government can rapidly pass draconian laws to curtail competition or prohibit an individual’s ownership of more than one business – bears a strong resemblance to the U.S. under Obama. If so, it doesn’t say much for their sense of objective reality, a much-vaunted Randian virtue.
Amid the collectivist pieties of the left and the religious pieties of the right, Rand’s message of individual liberty and achievement could have been a welcome alternative – if stripped of its extremism, paranoia, and ideological intolerance. Unfortunately, it is precisely those qualities that are likely to resonate today.
ATLAS SHRUGGED (1½) • Directed by Paul Johansson • Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler and Paul Johansson •Rated PG-13 • 97 min •At Osio Cinemas.