Sunday, April 24, 2011

The United States of Mediocrity: Ayn Rand's Dystopian Novel on the Screen

I read Ayn Rand's dystopian masterpiece forty years ago, and at the time I simultaneously thought it would make a great film and that it was an unfilmable book. As is often the case with me, I was right and I was wrong.

The novel was loved and hated immediately upon publication, though the love came mostly from the readers and the hate from the critics. The film Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 shares that trait with the novel. The critics have mostly panned the film, the reviewers finding fault with every possible aspect of the film; they are duplicitous, however, in that what they really hate about the film is its message. Whether the film shares another trait with the novel - the ability to change lives - will be answered only with time, since, overall, this is a trilogy film, and Parts 2 and 3 will not be released for a few years, if they are produced.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 was released on 15 April 2011, but I did not see it till a week later. Actually, I'm surprised I had the chance to see it at all. At first, it was only going to be screened in a paltry 53 theaters; it looked as if I would have to trek to Los Angeles. Pressure from Ayn Rand enthusiasts, film fans and a Tea Party base increased that number to nearly three hundred - I would have to drive to San Diego. However, the box office earnings (it was the #3 film that week based on per-theater earnings) forced theater managers to swallow their ideological pride and cash in, bringing the number of theaters to five hundred, and closer to me, just down the road, so to speak.

"Midas" Mulligan is recruited by the shadowy John Galt

The film follows the book, corresponding to the first part of the three-part novel, though the setting is less "generic" than the novel, setting it in a near-future dystopian America and bringing in all the technology that has emerged since 1956. However, it brings back passenger railways (paramount in the book) to prominence in a way so economically believable that we in the real world might actually see it come to pass. I will not delve deeply into the plot or the message - if that is what you're concerned about, see the film for yourself, or read the book, or both. My concern here is evaluating the film as a film, addressing the technical aspects about which the critics have been so harsh.

Henry Rearden views the product of his intellect and ability.
The film was made in about a year, with primary shooting beginning last year, just before the rights option was due to expire. It had a budget of $10 million, not exactly a princely sum these days, and managed to come in under budget, thanks to capable direction and an able cast of economical actors. Despite the modest output, the sets are opulent, calling upon art deco and art nouveau motifs, creating homes and workplaces that could actually belong to the millionaire characters. Set direction is excellent and stock photography is used in ways that create a greater reality than money can buy.

Dagny Taggart confronts a well-dressed union goon.
The acting capabilities of the actors have been much vilified by critics, as well as "reviewers" who admit they did not actually see the film - one Florida newspaper hack claimed all he needed to know about the film he obtained by watching the audience, which was "white, and old." Most of the actors will not be overly familiar to film-goers, but they portray the characters in subtle shades, through understatement rather than the over-the-top dramatics that passes for modern cinema. In this way, they let the characters "speak" for themselves rather than just being an actor's projection. The dialogue is low-key, with few histrionics, so when tempers flair, passions are expressed, and voice are raised, they actually carry meaning. Unlike what you find in many films these days, no actor shouts and screams his way through Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.

The government involves itself with business, enacting laws that
take over capital, redistribute wealth and promote social justice.
The direction and editing of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is at the same time crisp and relaxed, befitting a tale that is, at its heart, a mystery. The pacing of the film is part of what gives it an very old-fashioned feel, harking back to a time when it was more important to tell a story than jar the viewers' senses. And very effective storytelling it is, wasting no time on images and scenes that do not advance the plot. The stock photography pulled from various sources are not well known, and are edited into the film with the intent, first and foremost, of telling the story. The wordiness of the book has been admirably pared for a visual format. Despite having been given the helm of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 just days before filming began, director Paul Johansson quickly and confidently made it his own vehicle, while never losing sight of the driving story.

The flagship-train of the John Galt Line crossing an elegant bridge
composed of the controversial Rearden Metal at 250 mph.
Most of the action of the film is confined to homes, offices, public buildings, urban blights and factories, which are all fully realized cinemagraphically, it is when the plot moves to Colorado and the construction of the new John Galt Line upon the revolutionary Rearden Metal that the film positively shines. Tracks more than a century old are ripped up and replaced with a metal that the government condemns (since Rearden will not share with his competitors) alternately as physically hazardous or social dangerous. The result is a construction that is industrially erotic, especially the spidery bridge that replaced a Nineteenth Century behemoth. The metal shines in the Colorado sun like a dream. The special effects are modest but highly effective, developed by Stargate Studios.


The score of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, composed by Czech-born Elia Cmiral, is lush and epic. It functions as the heart and soul of the film, drawing many of the disparate elements into a unified whole. From the very first, it made me think of what was for me one of the most enduring images in the book, the notes of a musical master whistled by a not-so-common railway worker; unfortunately, it was not a plot element carried from the book to the film.

We'll probably not look at another film anytime soon, but this is an important film, in which characters often echo us in voicing concerns there is "something wrong with the world" though they cannot fully articulate the source of their uneasiness. For those of you who care about film, I wanted to give Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 a fair shake when it came to a technical evaluation. As I mentioned, most reviewers savaged the film, but ignored the message - to attack the theme would require some commentary on a government that is far too much like our own, and they were too timid to do so...or at least that's the view from right here on the left coast.

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