The makers of “Atlas Shrugged” are to be commended for their audacity. Adapting Ayn Rand’s massive, 1200-page economic epic into a feature film (or trilogy of films) is by no means an easy task. Not only is Rand’s work highly controversial – notably, she authored the philosophical treatise “The Virtue of Selfishness” – but it also contains heavy didactic elements that are difficult to translate onto celluloid. However, director Paul Johansson somehow manages to make his movie work. Capitalizing on Tea Party antigovernment angst, “Atlas Shrugged – Part I” serves as an engaging first chapter in what promises to be a strong adaptation.
In an age of economic unrest (2016), railroad company Taggart Transcontinental serves as a bastion of capitalist might. Guided by the firm hand of corporate executive Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), the company somehow manages to stay profitable despite anti-capitalist sentiments among politicians. Meanwhile, fellow entrepreneur Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) devises a super-powerful alloy (known as “Rearden Metal”) that promises to be stronger, lighter, and cheaper than traditional steel. An alliance soon forms between Dagny and Rearden – he supplies her with the resources for her railroad tracks, while benefiting financially from the arrangement.
This partnership is vehemently protested by many in Washington, who see the two executives as cold, heartless profit-mongers. A series of increasingly onerous government regulations threatens both Taggart Transcontinental and Rearden Steel. Even more disturbingly, many of the country’s leading businessmen and economic moguls have been disappearing. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Who is John Galt?” – ostensibly a nonsense phrase, but one that plays a key role in the development of the plot.
It sounds pretty dull, and if I hadn’t read the book, I would’ve been turned off by the first act of the film. A seemingly endless succession of corporate boardroom meetings drags down the plot – a flaw exacerbated by a somewhat deficient script. Rand’s magnum opus isn’t easy to make into a movie, and the filmmakers do the best they can. However, “Atlas Shrugged – Part I” manages to overcome these flaws, building to a truly powerful climax driven by strong characters.
Entering the movie, I was concerned by the high level of negative critical feedback (only 6% of critics gave the film a positive review). Most criticism revolves around the aforementioned issues…but these reviews fail to capture the true fire and passion that propels the story. “Atlas Shrugged” is, first and foremost, a story about humans fighting for principle. And while the first half of the movie feels fairly flat, the characters truly come into their own during the latter portion.
One of the greatest strengths of Rand’s writing – and an inevitable flaw in any adaptation – is her characterization of her protagonists. Dagny and Rearden are portrayed as strong, dispassionate, driven, and occasionally ruthless…characteristics which are very appealing in print, but much less so onscreen. Early on in the film, I found myself cringing at their cold, businesslike emotionlessness. Fortunately, they begin displaying more human emotions as the movie progresses, which vastly strengthens the film.
And “Atlas Shrugged – Part I” certainly has its outstanding moments. Although it frequently does feel like the low-budget indie film it is, the cinematography is frequently breathtaking. It captures the fierce intensity of Rand’s prose, while making the story more accessible to the public at large. In an age of widespread concern over government intervention in the free market, “Atlas Shrugged” just might serve as a valuable catalyst for effecting change.
Any discussion of “Atlas Shrugged” must necessarily take into account the underlying philosophy of Objectivism – a fiercely individualistic rejection of altruism, and a worldview that holds self-interest as its greatest value. There are definitely some nods to this throughout, but for the most part they feel like ham-handed additions. “Atlas Shrugged – Part I” is more a celebration of capitalism and individualism than anything else…although viewers can expect to see more Objectivism on display if Parts II and III are produced. Personally, having read the book, I found the film version to be remarkably tame in the philosophical sense.
Other objectionable content is found in the form of one sex scene between Dagny and Rearden (he’s already married to another woman). While it isn’t sustained or graphic (and easily skippable on DVD) it may give some viewers pause. Rand’s view of sexuality, while beyond the scope of this discussion, appears to reject traditional institutions such as marriage. This is, however, the only seriously problematic element of the film. There are a handful of swearwords (maybe 4 or 5 at most), but violence is a non-issue. (The movie carries a PG-13 rating “for a scene of sexual content.”)
So, should you see “Atlas Shrugged – Part I”?
If you’re a fan of the book, you won’t be disappointed. While there are a few missteps along the way (some key plot elements are cut, and the script is lackluster) the movie manages to capture the potent spirit of the novel. If you’ve never read “Atlas Shrugged,” you might be turned off by the slow first half…but the ending makes up for it. I watched the film with a friend who hadn’t read the book, and he said afterward, “I feel like a third eye just opened up…I see the world differently.”
And indeed, Rand’s work is brilliant, seductive, compelling, and subversive. I agree with some elements of her philosophy – individualism, ambition, personal integrity, and a willingness to persevere in spite of social pressures – but strongly disagree with her utter rejection of altruism and Christianity. Readers of her books (or viewers of the film) are advised to engage critically with her work. Objectivism (in all its forms) is an addictive, intoxicating worldview, and must be handled cautiously.
If you’re interested, go see this movie – but watch it with your eyes wide open.
A strong, satisfying first adaptation of Ayn Rand’s epic novel.
Normalized Score: 4.6