Thursday, April 21, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

Alternate Title:  Triumph of the Will

One sentence synopsis:  Two industrialist billionaires fight the government's attempts to destroy their businesses.

Notes from Havoc:  This movie is one that my normal style of reviewing does not really apply to. I could, at need, cite things that I thought worked and things that did not, as is my custom in these reviews, but a movie of this sort defies the usual review style. The impact it made on me, and that which it will have on others is not based upon it being a good or a bad film, but its content and the style of those who have created it. As such, do bear with me as I explain what can be said for a film of this sort, before getting to the crux of the matter.

Things Havoc liked:  Low expectations are a given here. Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand's Magnum Opus, a sixteen hundred page polemical rant about the evils of collectivism, unionism, and pretty much every other 'ism' that is not naked Capitalism. I knew I was going to have to see this movie when I first heard about it, as I could not envision how one could possibly make a film out of it.

Well, they made one. Not a particularly good film, but a workable film nonetheless, and if I am to be honest, I must admit that it's not the worst thing I've ever seen, nor even the worst film I've seen all year. There are positives to speak of. One of them is Grant Bowler, last seen on True Blood, who plays Hank Rearden, one of the two billionaire-heroes of the movie. His character is weird and he plays it strangely and with an amoral gloss that's vaguely unsettling, but given that he's supposed to be this way, I can't fault his performance, which is honestly better than the film seems to deserve. The supporting cast in general, comprised mostly of unknowns (with a cameo by Armin Shimmerman!) does credibly well, and surprisingly, does not lapse into caricature when portraying the large numbers of "evil" liberals and "parasites" in the film (more on that later).

The direction, if a little inconsistent in its pacing, is decent and serviceable. Shots are well constructed and workmanlike, and the plot, byzantine and strange as it is, does move along nicely. The movie has the unenviable task of somehow explaining how freight/passenger trains are relevant again in this modern age, as well as setting up the appropriate economic setting for this near-future world (the book is set in the 50s, the movie in 2016). Surprisingly, it does both quite well upfront. Finally, the style of the film, as "creative" persons disappear progressively, leaving behind only the enigmatic "Who is John Galt?" question, is mined reasonably effectively for tension and mystery as the film progresses, with dateline-updates of missing persons that seem stolen from an FBI file. I have to admit that I found this method somewhat compelling.

Things Havoc disliked:   While Bowler does a good job, the other lead, played by Taylor Shilling, really doesn't. She doesn't seem amoral so much as frozen emotionally, and when the script calls for her to act with emotional resonance, she fails utterly. This is not helped by the fact that the writing for this film is uniformly terrible, and not in an interesting way. Every line is a clunker, every dialog scene a complete mess. Nobody, not even repressed billionaires obsessed with their work and creative vision, talks like the people in this film do. Great stretches of the film are taken up with scenery shots of Colorado, which is nice, I guess, but cuts the pacing of the movie entirely to ribbons. Overall however, there just isn't all that much that happens in this film, not enough to justify the running time at least. The plot seems laborious and slow. Characters have scenes wherein they say things to one another that are repeated over and over again, while other, more important information (such as just what the hell "Who is John Galt?" is supposed to mean) is glossed over or ignored. The overall result seems amateurish.

Final thoughts:  I've given you a breakdown on the pros and cons of this movie, but as I said initially, the pros and cons of a movie like this are almost beside the point. They certainly don't get to the core issues of the film as I saw it. Those I shall address now:

This is one of the most unsettling movies I've ever seen.

No, it's not filled with bile and polemical hatred for all Liberals (or rather, while it is, it's certainly not the most strident form I've ever seen). It's not packed with commands to kill people or commit terrible crimes (though one of the secondary heroes does cause a massive ecological catastrophe that will poison or kill thousands of people out of spite). What is unsettling is the mindset of the creators of this film, the way in which, unintentionally, it reveals the worldview under which they operate.

Let me explain what I mean. Consider the Turner Diaries.

The Turner Diaries, for those who are not in the know, is one of the most famous pieces of Neo-Nazi literature in the world, a spec-fiction/alternate history novel about an underground network of neo-nazis who rises up to conquer the world and destroy the Jewish-backed "System", annihilating everyone of non-white ancestry in a nuclear holocaust, as told from the ground level by one of its members in diary form. It is a noxious and vile book, but one that I have read several times nonetheless, for it has popped up in the decades since its publication in the hands of terrorists and racists beyond compare (including Timothy McVeigh). There is no shortage of neo-nazi literature in the world, yet this book, alone among the reams of the stuff one could find from Stormfront, is enduring, persistent, and, in the right circles, famous.

The reason for this, as I see it, is the mindset.

Most polemical works, particularly fringe polemical works like Mein Kampf or Imperium, are really rants, usually screaming rants, about the evils of one thing or another. Two thirds of Mein Kampf consists of barely legible tirades about how the Jews, Communists, and countless others are evil monsters out to destroy Germanic culture who all must be annihilated. What's so unique about the Turner Diaries is that it is not a strident polemic, indeed it's not a polemic at all. Most Nazi literature goes to great lengths to explain to everyone and sundry why it is vitally necessary for the salvation of the human race to slaughter giant swatches of the population. The Turner Diaries does not. It contains practically no racial epithets, no political rants, few tirades about what is wrong with the world. The tone is basic and pedestrian, no screaming lectures, no attempt to convert the unconverted. Killing Jews is nowhere justified, it is simply assumed to be the proper course of action. There is no need to justify it because the novel holds the slaughter of the non-white races to be a self-evident necessity, whose utility and purpose are so obvious as to not require explanation. The hero of the story does not explain why he kills Jews. He simply kills them. And we the readers are obviously expected to identify with this hero because he is slaughtering Jews.

Atlas Shrugged, for all the moral bankruptcy of its political philosophy, is not Neo-Nazi literature. It does not advocate the slaughter of anyone, and I am not comparing it to the Turner Diaries for the purposes of invoking Goodwin's Law. Its proponents, creators, and enthusiasts are not Nazis, and it is not my intention to describe them as such. What I am attempting to say though, is that like the Turner Diaries, this movie dispenses entirely with polemical tirades designed to convince the viewers of the right of Objectivism and private enterprise. It does not go to any lengths to show why the Liberals that the heroes are pitted against are wrong. It assumes that we as viewers will believe that they are wrong and evil, simply because they are Liberals.

There is a scene, for example, wherein the brother of one of the main characters bursts angrily into the hero's office and demands to know why she has abandoned an entire rail line in Mexico. When the hero explains that she did so because she believed it would profit the company, the brother explodes into an impassioned speech. He tells her that the rail line in question was the cornerstone of the area's infrastructure and economy, that hundreds of thousands of people depended on it, and that by doing this, she will annihilate the fragile economic prosperity of the entire region, casting untold masses of people into abject poverty at a stroke. I had expected the film to give the hero an impassioned speech of her own defending her decision, castigating her brother's weak-willed idealism, and explaining her Objectivist principles. Such a defense could be made. Yet the movie has her contemptuously walk out of the room without so much as an answer for these arguments. The reason it has her do this is because, to the mindset of the filmmakers (and presumably their intended audience), such an argument does not require an answer. It is a Liberal argument, and thus self-evidently wrong.

I said before that the Liberals in this movie are not, by and large, portrayed as caricatures. That was not a decision made in the interests of fairness. Liberals, of which there are many in the film, are by and large allowed to behave as real Liberals, making arguments against Monopolies, in favor of regulation and sane taxation, and of the social cost of the "successes" that the industrialists trumpet. Of course, they are also conniving and scheming, out to 'get' our heroes constantly, but in every case, the arguments they make are not refuted, because they are not considered worthy of the effort of refutation. In this, the movie (not the book) reminds me of the Turner Diaries, where the world-view of the heroes is considered to be so obviously "right" as to obviate the need to convince anyone of its rightness. It is as though the heroes stood for the continuation of life, and Liberals for enforced mass suicide, or something equally mad.

In the movie's final scene (spoiler alert), our heroine looks over an oil field that has detonated and exploded, blackening the sky and filling land with flame from horizon to horizon. Countless thousands must be dead, hundreds of thousands of others are going to die or be poisoned from its toxic effects. Yet when she cries out in pain and anger, it is not because of these effects, but because the perpetrator of this disaster (the owner of the oilfield) has committed this act of sabotage against his own oilfield as a petulant slap back at the government who was attempting to regulate his business. She is crying, not because of the tens of thousands that are dead, but because the visionary oilman who did this has left, and vanished to join John Galt in some hideaway at the ends of the Earth, thus depriving her and the rest of the world of his incomparable genius.

And we, as watchers of the movie, are expected to agree with her.

There is a mindset at work in the creation of this film with which I am entirely unfamiliar, even among the actual real Objectivists that I know. Never before, save in the Turner Diaries, have I encountered its like, and the experience is one I will not soon forget.

This movie languished in Development Hell for over 40 years.  If only it had stayed there.

Final Score:  3.5/10

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