Movie Review : Atlas Shrugged - Part 1 (2011)
It’s possible that you’ve never heard of Atlas Shrugged. The controversial 1957 novel written by Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand has always been treated like a dirty secret in mainstream culture. Critics and academics generally shunned the book and denied it any legitimacy, but it remained constantly championed by right wing politicians, business executive-types (successful or not) and psychotic basement dwellers for over fifty years.
Why wasn’t it turned into a movie? The right were bought in 1979 and adaptation projects were scrapped in 1979, 1982 (with Rand’s passing), 1999 and 2009 * respectively. The modest Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 finally saw the light of day in 2011 and something became clear: turning a heavily ideological 1200-pages novel into a movie was a terrible fucking idea.
I’ve read the novel a long time ago (one year prior to starting this website), but from what I can remember Atlas Shrugged: Part I covers the first four to five hundred pages of the novel. It tells the story of Taggart Transcontinental, a national railroad undergoing a crisis after a major derailment. Vice-President Dagny Taggart (played to perfection by Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling) intends on replacing the rails by a new metal alloy stronger than steel called Rearden Metal. Aaaand society doesn’t want her to. Because it would give them an unfair advantage in a precarious economy… I think?
So, while Dagny and Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) are fighting corrupt, power-hungry politicians and meek businessmen, the elite ones start disappearing one by one after meeting with a shadowy figure.
Of course, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a terrible movie. Not necessarily because I ideologically disagree with it **. It’s just profoundly uncinematic. Say what you want about Ayn Rand’s novel and you’re probably right, but it’s filled with complex political schemes, hardball business and passionate philosophical diatribes moves that simply can’t translate to a 97 minutes movie. The result is full of old white men bickering around dinner tables and scheming like cartoon villains, shouting matches between people in tailored suits and needless scenes of transportation. It wears you out after 30 minutes or so.
Nonetheless, watching Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 in 2019 was oddly confronting and uncomfortable. In this era of hustle porn where the boundaries between work and life is increasingly blurring and entrepreneurs are worshiped like rock stars, it felt somehow wrong seeing people antagonize Henry Rearden for working a hundred hours a week and being ambitious. Rearden’s cold-blooded honesty about it felt even more wrong: “My only goal is to make money,” he says in the film. Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 has accidentally become a funhouse mirror reflection of the world we live in, where the symbol of success is making your passion a financial success story that will inspire others to do the same.
Maybe Ayn Rand won after all. We just haven’t realized it yet.
One last point I want to raise is that I found director Paul Johansson’s over-the-top caricature of left-leaning people quite interesting. Because we tend to do that, too. Turning right-wing figureheads into cartoon villains without trying to understand where they’re coming from. Johansson’s simplistic depictions mirrors our own and illustrates vacuity of current cultural discourse where we’re not trying to understand each other. Left-leaning politicians are nothing like what Paul Johansson portrays in Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. And right-leaning politicians probably nothing like we make them out to be ***. It’s humbling to realize we’re not being perceived for who we really are and that this dynamic is probably true on our end also.
Rest assured: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 was a huge box office flop. I thought for years it killed the sequels, but it did spawn two other movies. Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike in 2012 and Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? in 2014. Because of their respective resounding financial failures, each movie was filmed with a new director and an entirely new cast of (more affordable) actors, which is somewhat of an ultimate irony for an Ayn Rand adaptation. So, it’s unlikely another adaptation will see the light of day anytime soon. But it’s not because a movie is abysmal that we can’t learn from it and Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 had unwitting but uncomfortable statements to make. I’m not championing its philosophy in any way, but I think we might unwittingly do as a society.
* This one apparently had Angelina Jolie playing Dagny Taggart.
** But I do. In case it wasn’t clear.
*** At least, not all of them… perhaps.