The views on Atlas Shrugged Part I range from lavish praise to moral denunciation. My reaction immediately after viewing it opening night was that it is “basically good,” despite some obvious problems with it. See myinitial review as well as some audience reactions.
Having just watched the film again, I stand by my initial review, though I enjoyed the film even more the second time.
I wanted to see the film again just to enjoy it on the big screen. However, I also wanted to check my initial estimation of it. Undoubtedly before I saw it I expected it to be an utter failure, yet I was nevertheless excited to see it, so I felt quite relieved that it turned out to be much better than I expected. But had I erred on the side of overemphasizing its merits while ignoring its flaws? No. This movie got a great deal right, much more than its detractors recognize. The fact that it also got a lot wrong explains why I describe it as good but not great.
I have seen several basic camps emerge in evaluating the film.
1. Some fans of Ayn Rand lavish the film with praise, regardless of the virtues and flaws of the movie, simply out of fandom.
2. Some fans of Ayn Rand bitterly condemn the film, refusing to acknowledge any virtues of the movie, because the film does have some flaws and is not consistently true to the spirit of the book. (The fact that the film lists David Kelley as a consultant, while Kelley remains on very bad terms with Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff, does not help in this regard. Disclaimer: while I recognize the value of some of Kelley’s older works, such as The Evidence of the Senses, I think he’s gone basically off track since then and that Peikoff’s criticisms of him are on target. Moreover, I think the film’s producers would have done far better to turn to somebody who actually knows something about film, such as the Ayn Rand Institute’s Jeff Britting.)
3. Various conservatives praise the film for its political messages, regardless of the quality of the film. This group likes the film basically for its propaganda value.
4. Various leftists condemn the film because they hate Ayn Rand and everything she stands for, and there’s no way they’d ever say anything good about anything relating to her.
5. Some, like me, enjoyed the film yet see in it virtues and flaws. Some basically didn’t enjoy it because they put more weight on the problems that I too recognize.
6. The large majority of Americans, meanwhile, wonder what the hell this is all about or ignore the film completely. But maybe the film will encourage some of these people to grab the novel off their shelves and blow the dust off of it.
Frankly, I’m as skeptical of those who cannot find fault with the film as I am of those who cannot find anything to like about it.
First I’ll review what I liked about the film. Obviously there are spoilers below!
The Cinematography: The Colorado landscapes are gorgeous. The bridge is stunning. The interior settings are rich. I particularly enjoyed the construction scenes of the John Galt line. This is all the more impressive considering the film’s limited budget.
The Acting: I have heard that the acting is “wooden,” claims I regard as silly. Some of the acting is superb: see Patrick Fischler as Paul Larkin, Rebecca Wisocky as Lillian Rearden, and Armin Shimerman as the bureaucratic scientist. Matthew Marsden does a very good job as the entitled sniveler James Taggart.
Unfortunately, the acting of the heroes is on the whole less-good than the acting of the villains. Of the heroes, my favorite performance is Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt. Though physically he does not match the Ellis of the novel, I liked what he did with the role. He turned nicely from bitter anger toward the Taggarts to warmth toward Dagny and Hank.
I really liked Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. I like the way he smiles lightly at his metal. I have heard the complaint that he smiles too much throughout the film; this is not the Hank of the novel. No, it is not, but the Hank of the novel is horribly emotionally repressed for the first third of the story, and that would have been extraordinarily difficult to portray in a stand-alone movie. Notice that Bowler invokes both the fond half-smile as well as a sarcastic, forced smile with his wife. His acting is anything but “wooden;” it is subtle and emotionally rich.
Those who call Taylor Schilling’s performance of Dagny “wooden” I think unfairly malign her intentionally understated performance. What I get from her performance is what I get from the Dagny of the novel: a very rich emotional life hidden (from those who don’t know her) by a hardened exterior. I thought she did this very effectively, though I grant some of her hand gestures are a little awkward.
The Setting: The film does a very nice job setting the context for the story. Very quickly it establishes that we are in the near future, that the global economy is falling apart, that rail is now the most critical component of transportation, and that bureaucrats continue to seize control over the economy.
True, the novel Atlas is timeless, almost an alternate reality of a slightly altered America of the past. But imagine how hard that would have been to set up in a film. You’d have to communicate to the audience why we’re seemingly in the past, but not America’s actual past. That would be incredibly difficult to do, and I think critics of this aspect of the film simply haven’t given much thought to the enormous challenge of setting the context. Remember, we are now several additional decades away from the quasi-historical setting that Rand envisioned.
My own solution, what I’ve envisioned, is a film shot in black-and-white, with certain scenes (including Galt’s Gulch) shot in color. But such an approach brings its own set of difficulties and risks.
The Themes: True, the film only skims the intellectual surface of Rand’s novel. But consider what the film does manage to convey. Dagny makes decisions based on her first-hand understanding of the facts. The producers move the world. There is a difference between producing versus mooching and forcing, and the latter are wrong. The film largely stays true to the intellectual underpinnings of Rand’s works, and it does so without (or only rarely) sounding didactic. That’s quite a feat.
The Pacing: I’ve heard the complaint that the film is too fast, that the audience won’t follow the story, etc. I disagree with all that. Yes, the film moves along briskly, as I think appropriate. Imagine the reviews if the film seemed to drag! The best comparison I can think of on this point is Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which also compresses an enormous amount of background into the opening sequence and moves the story along quickly. I’m not bothered by this. Anyone who pays attention to the movie can follow the basic turns of the story. To me the film is “richly layered” in a way that invites multiple viewings.
Next I’ll address some of the other criticisms I’ve heard about the film.
The Bracelet: I did think the film misses much of the emotional richness of the bracelet scene. Dagny is nearly out of her mind with anger during the scene, and that simply does not come across. Dagny should have confronted Lillian as she berated the Rearden bracelet in front of others, as happens in the novel. Still, if you forget the book, the scene works okay.
The Music: Frankly, I didn’t even notice the music my first viewing. I’ve heard complaints that it’s not spectacular. But usually if you’re thinking about the music while watching a film, the music isn’t doing its job. This time, because I was consciously thinking about the music, I did notice it, and I enjoyed it. I liked the pristine horns during the train run.
The Drinking: The first time I watched the film, I didn’t notice that the characters often have a drink in their hands. I noticed this time because others have commented on it. But it doesn’t bother me. I also noticed that Hank was drinking coffee at his anniversary party, sitting in bored solitude, which is just right.
The Sex: True, the sex scene between Dagny and Hank captures nothing of the emotional complexity of the book. Rather than include a silly “I want to kiss you” scene, I think the film should have cut straight from the train scene to a far more rowdy sex scene. That would have left all of Hank’s conflicts suitably in the background. Still, I didn’t hate the sex scene; I just don’t think it did much for the movie.
Ellis’s Strike: I didn’t notice this the first time, but I did after others pointed it out. Ellis’s strike is oddly split up. It’s as though he goes on strike, then comes back to burn his wells. But I think it’s not too hard for a viewer to make this work; just assume that Ellis had to stick around for a while to close down his business, which is actually how the characters often go on strike in the book.
Stadler: Yes, I was surprised by the casting for Dr. Stadler. But, again, try to forget the book and just contemplate whether the character works within the movie. He works okay (not great). Yes, the dialog about the three students seems to come out of nowhere. But, again, it’s fairly easy for a viewer to fill in the gaps: Stadler is generally disillusioned because he lost three great students, so now he doesn’t give a damn about Rearden, either. I don’t think that’s too big of a gap for a viewer to cross. A few words could have made the connection clearer.
Owen Kellog: Ethan Cohn’s “Owen Kellog” is again nothing like the book. I think the role was basically miscast and misacted. Still, it’s not impossible to believe that a mousy man is nevertheless quite competent at his job, and the viewer basically has to take his background on Dagny’s word, anyway.
Now I want to touch on the truly bad aspects of the film.
Hugh Akston: It’s absolutely impossible to believe that the Hugh Akston of the film is a brilliant philosopher. Hopefully they’ll fix that for future parts.
Dagny and Francisco: I still hated the scene where Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. That line served no purpose, and it greatly distracted from the emotional impact of the sequence.
Francisco: I didn’t consistently hate the film’s portrayal of Francisco, but I didn’t like it, either. It’s impossible to believe that this scruffy barfly is some sort of great man. I think the actor could have done an okay job if he’d had a better understanding of the character or better direction (and a better costumer). One of the film’s missed opportunities is the first scene between Francisco and Hank; this should have been electric, but it was instead a little boring.
The Motor: In the case of the motor, I think the film needed to stray farther from the novel. You have this great climax of the train run, then this long and seemingly pointless quest for the motor. That time could have been spent building up the train run more completely. For example, the novel’s scenes of the room full of engineer volunteers, and the guardians of the rail, reveal the deep importance and emotion of the event, yet those scenes are absent from the film. In general, the train run, though inspiring, didn’t capture Dagny’s ecstatic state of mind, which means it didn’t set up the sex scene as well as it could have.
Some of my favorite films are far from cinematically perfect. I absolutely loved Equilibrium and saw it many times in the theater, though it too has some problems. Whedon’s Serenity remains one of my all-time favorites, despite some somewhat cheesy scenes with “Mr. Universe” and some less-than-spectacular digital effects. While I’ll never like Atlas as much as I like those other two films, it definitely joins my list of favored films.
I return to where I began: I think Atlas Shrugged Part I is a “basically good” film despite its flaws. And I just don’t get those who think the film deserves nothing but praise or nothing but condemnation. I still think I’ve made the best analogy: it’s Atlas Shrugged as directed by theFountainhead‘s John Snyte, though I would add, on a good day.