Thursday, April 17, 1997

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Pnin and I saw Atlas Shrugged, Part One last night. As he says in that post, I expected either to love or hate it. Generally, the people directing the movie of a book one once loved either get it very, very right or very, very wrong.

This movie was a mix of very, very right and very, very wrong. Some observations:

1. The visuals are actually pretty well done. There are lots of lovely scenes of the Colorado countryside, the Taggart trains, and the beautiful hotels of wealthy capitalist New York that really get across the Objectivist "sense of life" that holds onto so many people even after one's leanings toward harder Objectivist doctrine have fallen away. I highly recommend watching this movie with the sound off and closed-captioning on once it comes to DVD. If Taylor Schilling did not have to talk at all, this movie really would be quite lovely.

2. Some of the actors are very good. Wesley Mouch is absolutely pitch perfect. James Taggart is cast younger and hotter here than I imagined him in the novel. He comes off as more immature ex-frat boy than evil villain. Oddly, this makes him more plausible than the reader imagines. Paul Larkin is a minor, minor character in the novel, but he's a little more complex and interesting here. One sees him actually struggling a little bit with the decision to take the ore mines from Rearden. He actually comes off as an innocent lamb with mixed intentions.

2. The actor who plays Rearden's very good. He understands the basics of what makes the character tick. On the other hand, he's a bit too alpha and not quite henpecked enough. One doesn't really see the same tension between happy professional life and miserable, neurotic family life that drives most of Rearden's character development in the novel.

3. Taylor Schilling, the actress who plays Dagny Taggart really is not at all the right fit for this movie. She nails a few scenes well -- e.g. the bracelet exchange with Lilian Rearden. But she just doesn't quite seem to grok what makes Dagny Taggart tick. In a few places, she tries to play the character as a "you go girl" feminist of the Hillary Clinton school. While Dagny Taggart is strong and ought to be a feminist icon, she's more....incandescent, in the sense that Virginia Woolf meant the word.... than that. So at moments when Dagny ought to be played as restrained, as in repressed pain, Schilling is icy and not altogether there. At others, e.g. the fire at Ellis Wyatt's house, she's too melodramatic by half.

4. Atlas is a big novel. Even with a three-part series, directors have to cut something. Though I have a few quibbles with this script, for the most part it's pretty good. It gives a feel for the story's important themes without bludgeoning viewers over the head.

5. Much has already been said about the decision to set the movie in the present day. I still have mixed feelings about that. As Pnin said in his review, the trick involving the oil price increase is silly and doesn't quite work. On the one hand, Rand's dialogue would feel less stilted and out of place in a costume drama. On the other, the incorporation of modern cable news and internet into the story allows the directors to communicate crucial world-building information quickly. That's valuable in a story of this length. Setting the story in the present day does give it added political salience, though it's not as though the political import of the story would've gone unnoticed had it been set in a 1930s dystopia.

6. Eddie Willers is black. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's not as though the novel ever mentions his race, and although it would've been a bit odd for the children of a 1920s railroad magnate to spend so much time with a friend of another race, it's not impossible. Rand herself was vocal in decrying racism as evil. On the other hand....there's something almost comical about a bunch of studio executives sitting around and saying, "How can we make a novel that has the sentence 'Money is the root of all good' in it more appealing to P.C. sensibilities?" and someone else crying out "Let's insert a token black character!" So that people will think that Objectivists are, like, cool with diversity!" It's not as though the pro-diversity crowd are suddenly going to cotton to Rand because there was a black guy in the movie. On the other other hand, as Pnin points out, moving the story forward to 2016 makes it less plausible that all of Taggart Transcontinental's senior people would be white.

7. Megan McArdle is right: the line about a "society where individual achievement is valued" fell flat. Other people in the Landmark E Street Cinema actually laughed aloud.

8. The "Cold Case File" style dossiers that pop up for the characters who've chosen to strike -- "Missing: Midas Mulligan" -- look slightly goofy in low-rent police procedurals. They look even sillier here. ACK. NO.

9. I was sad that the scene in which Dagny draws lots for the crew for the first run of the John Galt line was omitted. Not so much because that scene is crucial to the plot; it isn't. Rather, it's because one of the most unfortunate slanders against Rand - persisting since at least Whittaker Chambers's day -- is that she had no use for the honest, hard-working but intellectually limited workers. I've protested that this is at best overstated, but nobody else seems to want to take up the charge. It would've been nice to keep a couple of Rand's cameos of honest, hard-working blue collar types to show that she did notfavor sending large segments of the working class to the gas chambers.

10. The treatment of the discovery of the motor in this movie is odd. The original version has Hank and Dagny driving around the country when they decide to stop by an old factory and stumble upon the motor by chance. In the movie, Rearden has some inkling of what he's looking for in advance; he shows Dagny a blueprint of the motor in his office at one point. I can't understand the decision to make this change. It doesn't actually save time spent on exposition. And it makes the scene in the old Starnes factory less dramatic. Relatedly: Dagny is supposed to stumble on Hugh Akston running the diner by chance, rather than be sent there deliberately. Again, nothing is saved in the way of exposition, and something is actually lost in the way of drama.

**This post was not actually written in 1997, but rather in 2011. It's back-dated because it's difficult or impossible to do cut posts in Blogger, and I wanted to avoid spoilers for blog readers who might not have seen the movie.