Imagine Ayn Rand's Hummer-sized novel Atlas Shrugged (1,073 pages in the Signet mass-market paperback edition), the peak literary articulation of her Objectivist philosophy, finally adapted for the Big Screen—only it's so big it has to be broken up into three films, like Kill Bill, only with one more Bill.
Now imagine a different actor playing each of the roles in each film. Take the role of Dagny Taggart, VP of operations for Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, the prototypical self-made Randian hero who refuses to acquiesce to the collectivist looter mentality of the wider culture. In Part I of the film series, Dagny is played by Taylor Schilling (now on Orange Is the New Black); in Part II, by Samantha Mathis (this entry saw a definite uptick in “star” power—I mean Mathis costarred with John Travolta in a John Woo flick!); and Part III, released Friday, Dagny is portrayed by Laura Regan (who was in an episode of Bones).
Now imagine that Parts I and II aren't half bad, or at least not as bad as one might have feared given the low budgets and grossly tendentious nature of the material. Not award-winning, mind, but they boast professional production values, convincing-enough performances, and dialogue that was by no means Ed Woodish.
Now try and blot from your consciousness Part III—the climax, the mystery solved, the Who in the Who Is John Galt?—because it is so risibly awful that no one involved in its production should be allowed Social Security benefits or custody of minor children.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me get you caught up so there will be context for the most recent debacle.
Part I of the triptych hit screens on Tax Day 2011, a poke in the eye to the real enemy of liberty, presumably. The year is 2016, and we are quickly introduced to a dystopian tale of future rottenness but also one that evokes the very-early-twentieth-century industrial era. Railroads remain the main mode of manufacturing transport, and the battle for the future of Taggart Transcontinental is waged by Dagny over and against her brother James, a cowardly wretch who concedes to the statist status quo and the diktats of an increasingly authoritarian United States, now ruled not by a president but by a Head of State.
When a new type of metal becomes available, an alloy stronger but lighter than conventional steel, the brain child of one Henry Rearden, Dagny wants it for her rail lines, but brother James and the "social-justice" bureaucrats who oversee American industry are terrified that Rearden Metal is too good and will destroy all competitors. Naturally, they seek to bring Rearden to heel. First they demand that he divest himself of his ore and coal holdings, forcing him to buy on an "open" market, thus making the production of Rearden Metal more expensive and less competitive, thereby coddling his less-innovative competitors. To this he acquiesces. However, he refuses to sell the metal to the government, especially the sinister-sounding State Science Institute. This is a violation of the "Fair Share Law," which demands everyone make their products available to everyone else.
Part I does a decent job of setting a very wide stage. We are introduced to the white hats (Dagny, Henry Rearden, banker Midas Mulligan, shale-oilman Ellis Wyatt, South American copper-mining magnet Francisco D'Anconia), and the black hats (James Taggart, lobbyist and government mooch Wesley Mouch, Hank's non-too-sympathetic wife Lillian, and Rearden rival Orren Boyle).
And of course, we learn of this mysterious figure named John Galt, who seems to be on everyone's lips in the form of a question, as in Who Is...?
The anachronism of rail as the main mode of industrial transport is explained as the result of prohibitively expensive gas prices. A major accident on Taggart's Rio Norte line inspires Dagny to invest in Rearden Metal, even if it means forming her own company: the John Galt Line. The new line is a success, and so of course Rearden is forced to combat phony state-sponsored science reports that claim his new metal is dangerous and that he is a selfish traitor for refusing to conform to the ever-growing list of regulations that would make his proprietary metal common property.
Dagny and Rearden are twin souls who despise having to live and work for others, and so become closer in a biblical sense, this despite the interposition of a spouse who refuses to give old Hank a divorce. They also discover what appears to be an abandoned project that has world-historical implications: a new motor than could in theory provide limitless energy. Whose project was this? Who and what stopped it? And what happened to Ellis Wyatt, who has disappeared as if into thin air with his oil fields ablaze. Stay tuned for Part II: The Strike.
Fade In: The highly centralized American economy has gone from bad to worse—what with Directive 10-289 forcing everyone to remain in their current positions at the same salaries and all businesses made to produce the same amount of goods and services year after year, once again to level the playing field. Then people start to go missing. Not like in the Pinochet years or the last season of Welcome Back, Kotter. And not just any people. The Elect.
First there was the aforementioned Wyatt. Then a brilliant concert pianist. Then a partner of Rearden's, Ken Dannager, a coal king. Then the charismatic copper-mine magnate Francisco D'Anconia (played with enormous zest this time by Esai Morales) but not before his mines are literally blown and rendered useless. Finally, a young scientist who has turned from the dark side, government work, to Dagny's employ, Quentin Daniels (Dietrich Bader). His task was to see if he could do something with that buried treasure Dagny and Rearden unearthed: the super-motor gizmo. Just as a breakthrough is imminent, Daniels, too, says goodbye, and disappears literally into the sky.
I have to admit that I experienced an epiphany of sorts watching Part II. A light went on. This film. What it is. What the book is.
It's the libertarian Left Behind.
Get this: select people are disappearing into the ether. And the rest of the world is left staggering under the burden of their absence. All that they have contributed, including their business concerns, vanish with them, deliberately destroyed.
All along, John Galt has been calling his own to him, calling for, in fact, a Strike—of the world's producers as opposed to its leeches. This is nothing short of the Rapture. "Who is John Galt?" is actually a prayer, and John Galt, the messiah. Once a mere engineer for a car company, he is now revealed to be the Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause of industrial growth, the man who vowed to "stop the engine of the world." And with the sound of a trump, actually a crash, he emerges from the heavens and pulls the weary one-percenters from the wreckage of their lives—a wreckage that is the direct result of the Head of State, the Antichrist—and beckons them to a new earth, one where the minions of the son of perdition have no say: Galt's Gulch.
"Who do people say that I am?" "Who is John Galt?"
"We won't let the world disappear," Rearden promises Dagny at one point. Of course not. That's faith talking. There's the thousand-year reign coming. And Galt is whisking away his Elect, taking them to a place where they will rule with him in a new dispensation.
So where does this leave us? This past Friday, we were treated to the finale, Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?
Played by Paul Johansson in Part I and D. B. Sweeney in Part II (but again, more as shadowy figures than full-frontal main players), Galt finally comes to the fore in Part III. And it turns out ... he’s sorta tubby. Not fat, mind you. Don’t go saying I said he was fat. But he could spend some more time in the gym, maybe lay off the chocolate cake (which he indulges, apparently, whenever he’s depressed).
Played by Kristoffer Polaha, this film's Galt is by no means the classic Randian Übermensch. He’s tall enough, but where are the piercing blue eyes and chiseled features and slim hips? This guy looks more like the "Before" picture in one of those P90X ads.
But never mind. What matters is that he’s king of Galt’s Gulch, a redoubt in the woods protected by an electromagnetic grid. The Gulch is home to the Masters of the Universe who had suddenly gone missing. Fed up with having to give away their hard-earned profits, the 99 percentile were taken up into the clouds and dropped into Objectivist heaven, there to await the final tribulation of the miserable graspers trapped in a self-devouring statist hell.
Having pursued the mysterious Galt by plane at the end of Part II, Dagny literally crashes his party and finds herself in the Gulch. Galt carries the slighted dazed and confused Taggart back to his headquarters, where she meets up with the likes of Midas Mulligan and Ellis Wyatt. Francisco D’Anconia is there as well (this time played by Portuguese actor Joachim de Almedia), part of a small community of the self-reliant who work in peace and trade in mutual respect.
Before Dagny can become one of them, however, she must swear the Galtian Oath: "I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine." A tad prosaic, but there you have the Randian ethos writ small, in case all those didactic asides that permeated the previous two films didn't quite hit their mark.
As intrigued as she is by the revolt of the masters, Dagny is not so sure this is the way to fight America's decline into simpering socialism. She sorta thinks this is taking the coward's way out. Dagny wants to go back into the world of the whiny and reclaim her family’s railroad line from her incompetent cur of a brother. While it is evident that she and Galt have eyes for each other (Hank Rearden having remained in the shirker's paradise, and what's a girl to do), she is still wary of conforming to the ways of the nonconformist.
So she flies back into the fray, to Taggart Transcontinental, to the confusion of just about everyone who had assumed, more like hoped, that she was dead, including little brother Jimmy.
Just as the Big Giant Head of State, Mr. Thompson, is about to announce that a pool of income from all railroads will be redistributed according to the prescriptions of a centralized committee, his live TV feed is co-opted by Galt himself, who proceeds to deliver what is in effect the set piece of Atlas Shrugged, the Objectivist philosophy spelled out as explicitly as can be imagined (as if it hadn’t been expressed by virtually every character already every 15 seconds). What in the book comprises roughly 56 pages, in the movie is only a couple of minutes.
(For a recitation of Rand's original composition, click here.)
The Big Giant Head goes off his nut and sends the cops to find Galt, who is holed up in a dumpy apartment (which also stores that amazing motor Dagny and Rearden had discovered, which, as it turns out, was of Galt's own invention). Thompson decides to play Satan to Galt's Jesus: offering our hero all the power in the world if only he’ll bow down and worship collectivism. Galt says ... well you know what he says.
Galt is then subjected to Project F (if I'm not mistaken, in the book it's Project X, but traduttore traditore). This is the secret project the State Science Institute had been working on, and to which Hank Rearden had refused to contribute his metal: a torture device akin to the thing Rambo’s hooked up to in his own Part II. Galt is tied to what looks like a chain link fence, arms outstretched (yes, Christ-like), and 100 million billion trillion zillion volts of electricity are shot through his 20% body fat.
Does he relent, agree to play ball, be a moocher, a quisling, a plodder? I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will anyway. He's just fine. Remember: it’s a government-made torture machine.
Dagny, Francisco, and crew manage to break Galt out of this shabby Guantanamo, just like in an old-time Saturday serial. Resurrected, Galt ascends back into heaven, hopeful that the tide has finally turned against the Kingdom of Darkness and toward the Kingdom of the Brights.
Now, how does Part III measure up as a film?
To say there is a decline in the quality of the screenwriting and production values would be an understatement. I know there was a Kickstarter movement at one point to raise some geetis (and faux outrage, apparently). And the producers have admitted that Parts I and II did not make a profit. But great jumping dust bunnies, this thing makes Plan Nine from Outer Space look like the original specs for the Apollo 11 moon launch.
How bad is Atlas III?
It’s lead-based paint bad. It’s asbestos in the nursery bad. It’s Windows Vista pre-Service Pack 1 bad.
Let’s start with the script. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not. Producer John Aglialoro, who was largely responsible for realizing this decades-long dream of a Hollywood Atlas, is notably absent from the screenwriting credits this time around. The script, such as it is, relies a lot on still photographs to cut down on costs and actual movement. (In fact, the whole film would have played better as one of those flip books you used to enjoy as a kid.) It hammers certain notes repeatedly, Objectivist points it wants to score, and leaves stuff like narrative flow, plot transitions, naturalistic dialogue, fluid pacing, and subtext for the losers. (I know, I know, subtext in a Rand story?)
Notice I didn’t mention character development. The characters are reliably screed thin, two-dimensional sounding boards for Rand's theories. But the screenwriters in Parts I and II were at least able to shape human-sounding sentences. Here, everyone sounds like they're reading the Accounting practices employed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an institution no one involved with this film need ever worry about associating with in any capacity.
As for the directing: the shots match (but we should really credit the editor). The cinematography, however, is atrocious. The lighting is crisp and the colors sharp, so I could see everything that was happening.
The performances are just shy of human rights violations, but I don’t fault the actors. I fault the sun and the moon for not going dark, I fault the heavens for not crying out, I fault the firmament for insufficient firmness in failing to stop this kind of thing from happening in the first place.
Remember evil Kirk and evil Spock in the "Mirror, Mirror" episode from season two of Star Trek? (That was a rhetorical question.) Well, if there were an evil Lifetime Channel, the Dagny and Galt romance would be a movie of the week. (There is a sex scene between Dagny and Galt that I highly recommend, however, for all chapters of the Love and Fidelity Network, as it will promote chastity among the young far more effectively than the threat of eternal hellfire ever could.)
Oh, and the torture scene wasn’t as funny as it could have been.
I mean the only thing missing from this absurdist piece of amateur theatrics was Grover Nordquist turning to James Taggart and asking, "Do you like gladiator movies?" (Yes, Norquist has a cameo, but no lines. Sean Hannity, Ron Paul, and Glenn Beck in fact have lines, and actually manage to liven things up, which will give you an idea of what we're working with here.)
What else can I say that hasn’t been said about Reefer Madness? I mean, there's a scene in Galt's apartment, when Thompson's storm troopers come to collect him, in which that mysterious motor is locked in ... and then he ... and it ... I can't even describe how ludicrous the execution of that scene is. I expected the Professor from Gilligan's Island to walk into frame and explain how it was all done with coconuts.
And I can’t imagine even the most ardent Rand fan coming away from this thing without wanting to punch a penguin. It renders all the book's big ideas as small, petty, and reeking of the resentment (or is it ressentiment?) that defined its detractors.
Look, if you need someone to give the Atlas Shruggeds a thumbs up before you load your Netflix queue—stream House of Cards again. Either you find the ideas that inform this narrative compelling, and so will suffer through the Mystery Science Theater 3000 special effects, not to mention the B-movie time-compressed plot developments—or you will roll your eyes and spend the last hour or so texting friends.
I say all this not as some reflexive Rand hater. I know she has her many enemies, certainly on the Left, her main target, the collectivists and welfare statists and advocates of quotas and manipulators of tax codes in the interest of “fairness.” And the atheist Rand, who dismissed all religion as mysticism, is not exactly loved on the Christian Right. “Selfishness”—her brand or any other—is sin. (Then there is Whittaker Chambers’s now famous takedown of Atlas Shrugged in the pages of National Review, where he more or less compared Rand’s survival-of-the-fittest philosophy to fascism redivivus. Given that Randianism is a revolt against compulsion, I find that just a tad unfair.)
I started reading Rand at 19—and the appeal to me then was not some warmed-over Nietzschean anti-morality. It was that Rand was fixated on the unfettered imagination. Turned liquid. Molten. Carving out new channels, new pathways, letting no one and no thing stop it. It was energy. It was life. It was freedom.
Did I mention I was 19?
There's a reason why Atlas Shrugged is rife with railways and natural resources and raw materials. It’s a bombastic prose poem to the original Industrial Age, when great men built a nation out of what they could pull from the earth and refine and refashion. It’s primal. It’s passionate. It’s as real as the car you drive or the building you live in.
And even though I am no Randian today, having long ago come to terms with the many contingencies and interdependencies of life, I nevertheless understand the appeal, the excitement, engendered by the author’s ideas and lust for life. And the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead was pretty good, with a screenplay by Rand herself, direction by King Vidor, and performances by Patricia Neal and the one and only Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, the visionary and uncompromising architect.
Which is why I think, dare I say it, that the original Atlas, for all its flaws, deserved better than this film. My libertarian friends deserved better. My eyeballs deserved better. That Native American who appeared in those anti-littering commercials back in the 1970s with a tear rolling down his cheek deserved better and I don’t even know why. He wasn’t even Native American—he was Italian.
Editor Adam Bellow (son of the Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow) wrote an important essay for NRO recently, entitled “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” In it he expressed his hope and enthusiasm for a resurgence of a “conservative counterculture”:
The late Andrew Breitbart understood the importance of popular culture and was determined not to neglect it. “Politics is downstream from culture,” he famously said, and he continually called upon conservatives to quit griping about liberal media bias and do something constructive instead. Write your own books, he exhorted. Record your own music. Make your own movies.
Just not this one.