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Atlas Shrugged, Part I and its critics

It was a time uncannily like this time. A time of rising poverty and unemployment, of a disappearing middle class, and a growing government class. Things were breaking down. The government always had a new “solution” — never mind that solution followed solution and matters got steadily worse. It was a time when the best finally quit pushing against the barriers erected against them and withdrew their talents, a time when the worst prospered through their connections to government.

The man on the street, not understanding why life was falling apart around him, shrugged and uttered that ultimate expression of cynicism and defeat, “Who is John Galt?”

I’ts mind-boggling to think that Ayn Rand envisioned this world in the 1950s, a era that, in retrospect, we like to imagine as the height of sunny, can-do, all-American prosperity.

In the new film Atlas Shrugged, Part I John Aglialoro, Harmon Kaslow, Paul Johansson, Brian Patrick O’Toole, and their actors and crew members have brought Rand’s vision into the twenty-first century. They even quite cleverly (and in the first five minutes yet), make those quaint and antiquated railroads at the center of Rand’s story relevant again.

Above all, they create a movie whose one hour and 42 minutes zoom by, a movie that should make any fan of the book hungry for parts II and III. Most professional critics probably hope that parts II and III never get made. They sure seem to be doing their best to ensure that outcome.

—–

This isn’t a review. Since I wrote my mini-take immediately after returning from a six-hour round trip to see the film, a couple of writers have spoken up to say exactly what I would have said or exactly what I’d like to have said. Oliver Del Signore did it first. Then Vin Suprynowicz added a reporter’s insight and noted some details that also struck me as I watched the movie. (As Vin says, the music is surprisingly good. And while I’m not sure Taylor Schilling is destined for stardom, she definitely owned the role of Dagny even when her actual emoting wasn’t quite up to the big screen.)

They’ve already said it all. So this isn’t a review, but is more of a review of the reviewers.

—–

A few minutes before heading off on the long drive to see Atlas Shrugged on opening day, I quick-checked RottenTomatoes.com. I noticed the same thing Oliver reported. At that moment, there were 16 professional reviews and just under 6,000 audience evaluations: Critics, 6% favorable; audience 86% favorable. And even the one critic who had weighed in with a plus didn’t really like the movie that much. He only thought it raised important issues and stimulated us to think.

I didn’t have time to read many reviews before heading into Civilization. But with that critical 6% in mind, I figured I was making that Dreaded Drive into Civilization (with its 40-mile mid-afternoon traffic jams) to see a crappy film.

Sure, I knew there were going to be film critics — just as there have been book critics for the last 50+ years — who loathe everything Randian on general principles. We already saw right here at this blog how the mere mention of anything-Atlas is enough to evoke rage (here and here).

But generally, when it comes to evaluating movies, I’m closer to critics than to audience. (I’m no fangirl; when somebody makes a mediocre movie from well-loved material, I don’t like it.) I figured most negative critics would be as as honest as Kurt Loder was.

Then — despite its many low-budget flaws — I loved the film. It was disgusting to come home, read the reviews, and find out just how dishonest or snidely dismissive most critics were.

Let’s admit right out that Atlas Shrugged, Part I is very much what Ben Kenigsberg called it: a “DIY megaproduction, whose ambition vastly exceeds its technical command.”

But I submit that if this had been any story other than Atlas Shrugged — particularly had it been some tale beloved of the intelligentsia — critics would have celebrated its achievements while recognizing its flaws. They would have extolled the producers for achieving so much with so little. They would have commented on its lush, expensive look. In hushed tones, they would have related the decades-long struggle to make the book into a film. They would have marveled at how one “little guy” (yes, John Aglialoro is rich, but he’s no more than a gnat in Hollywood) struggled for 20 years against an intransigent Hollywood establishment to get his movie made. They would have crowned him as this year’s king of indies for striking out on his own, against great odds, to get Atlas made. They’d have told breathlessly of the fan support that got this movie booked into 300 theaters, including the giant AMC chain.

“Sure,” they’d have said. “It has problems. But wow — what an achievement. What a David and Goliath story.”

A few did that.

But for the most part comments ran to “bastardized in the name of a quick buck” (odd that Aglialoro would suddenly be motivated by a “quick buck” after 20 years of struggle) and Ayn Rand will roll in her grave (from people who are clearly delighted at the prospect of Rand, or anyone who holds anything in common with her, suffering).

Even the biggest professionals simply had fun being snide.

Even nominally neutral sites felt the need to put the most negative spin on news about the film that some might have seen as encouraging.

And how did so many media folk, including movie reviewers, get the notion that Ayn Rand and the Tea Party are in bed with each other? Probably 1/3 of the negative reviews make that connection. Yegads. Rand? and the Tea Party? That’s so shallow and simplistic it’s more like a cartoon than an actual thought.

But of course that mind-bending mis-identification is a sign of what’s really going on. The folks who hope (either openly or otherwise) that parts II and III never get made really do see the vast and varied rebellion against big, intrusive government — and the faux-altruistic attitudes government has cultivated to grant itself more power — as being a monolithic movement of morons. Very threatening morons. Like thee and me. Label us all “teabaggers” and call this movie “tea-soaked” and you can make yourself safe, having walled us all behind a fringeoid stereotype.

Of course, Rand is partly responsible for the extreme reaction against her works. She wasn’t exactly into nuanced differences of opinion, herself. And she opposed altruism, when the real problem isn’t the altruistic impulses of individuals but the hijacking of altruism by powermongers who use it to guilt-trip us into surrendering to them.

Still, Rand aside, and this movie aside — the reviewers who feel such a need to sneer, dismiss, and misrepresent do appear to have one thing in common: they’re running scared from the rebellious rabble. The rebellious rabble — that would be us — are ascendant. And there are a lot of people whose bread is buttered on the government side who would like to see us shuffle back to our proper places on the fringes.

So, long live Atlas Shrugged! Despite all its problems, if it scares the folk who want others kept in their compliant, regulated, tax-paying, don’t-question-authority, whatever-we-do-is-for-your-own-good place, it’s a great thing.

15 Comments

  1. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty April 18, 2011 2:43 pm

    I may have to make an exception to my general rule and see this one. 🙂

  2. Pat
    Pat April 18, 2011 3:03 pm

    1) The article/review by Vin Suprynowicz was great!

    2) Re: the nay-sayers: “Consider the source.”

    3) What would be seriously funny: if people who saw the movie started asking again, “Who is John Galt?” (I was living in a college town when the book was published, and all the kids were asking that question daily as they read and discussed the book. Less so, but still present, some of the professors asked as well.) It would be fitting that it now gets asked on Obama’s watch.

    4) Claire, what was your take on the actor playing Francisco D’Anconia?

    5) “And even the one critic (at RottenTomatoes) who had weighed in with a plus didn’t really like the movie that much. He only thought it raised important issues and stimulated us to think.”

    Yes… and that’s what the book was all about. So as long as those issues are raised, and we are stimulated to think, it doesn’t matter what “rating” the movie gets. Besides, curiosity alone may swell the number of viewers, as controversy takes over.

  3. Claire
    Claire April 18, 2011 3:44 pm

    Pat, glad you liked Vin’s article. I thought it was exceptional, too. As to the nay-sayers, you’re right. But since many of them are supposed to be professionals I’d like to think they’d hold themselves to a higher standard. Okay, so I’m naive.

    Francisco. Sigh. Francisco. I mentioned in Friday’s comments section that Francisco was the most disappointing character. I must say that I don’t have anything against the actor. He was quite handsome and wasn’t on camera enough for me to form an opinion about his performance. What I did object to was that they made him a greasy, boozy type, where “my” Francisco (and if I dare say so, Rand’s Francisco) was more of a decadent Euro-style sophisticate.

    Oh, on the subject of things the movie did right or wrong, the only thing I haven’t seen anybody mention — a small thing, but one that left me with a great sense of relief — was that the (strictly PG13) sex scene between Dagny and Hank skipped both the sado-masochistic action and (oh, thank you!) the sado-masochistic dialog afterward. The scene was tender and they didn’t sneer at each other with lust-bloodied lips in the aftermath. That’s one place we can all be glad the filmmakers overruled the author!

    MamaLiberty, I’m not sure where you’ll be able to see it in Wyoming, though if it came to a theater as near as Casper it might be worth the trip. Not a great movie, but one well worth seeing.

  4. Pat
    Pat April 18, 2011 5:42 pm

    Francisco is a favorite of mine also, and I’m sorry that he was presented so negatively; but it’s possible Part II might redeem him somewhat. If this is the first third of the book, he will be explained better in the next third when his motivation and his relationship to Dagny have been made clearer.

  5. Roberta X
    Roberta X April 18, 2011 6:04 pm

    I’m surprised no one has pointed out that Rand tended to use words very…carefully: “altruism” implies having no thought for one’s own needs. She was not nearly so down on beneficence.

  6. Claire
    Claire April 19, 2011 7:18 am

    Via Rational Review News, here’s another good take on Atlas and reactions to it:

    http://www.amconmag.com/blog/2011/04/18/atlas-vs-avatar/

    If you ask the average film critic about the new movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” they will tell you it is a horrible movie. If you ask the average conservative or libertarian they will tell you it is a great movie. Objectively, it is a mediocre movie at best. Subjectively, it is one of the best mediocre movies you’ll ever see.

  7. Kentucky Kid
    Kentucky Kid April 19, 2011 8:13 am

    One gets the distinct feeling that most of the “professional” reviewers didn’t understand the book/movie in the first place . . . or they did, and are terrified by it.

  8. Kevin Wilmeth
    Kevin Wilmeth April 19, 2011 10:23 am

    “Yegads. Rand? and the Tea Party? That’s so shallow and simplistic it’s more like a cartoon than an actual thought.”

    Oh, there’s the money quote. It captures so much of what’s going on here. (And so I had to share.)

    Claire, you’ve taken great pains to point out that others have already said what you would say yourself. And yet you have contributed irreplaceably to the discussion.

  9. fitz
    fitz April 19, 2011 12:52 pm

    Wait, you didn’t like Serenity? Heretic. 😉
    Not a big fan of Rand (I’d much rather see the film version of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress), but this might warrant a viewing

  10. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau April 19, 2011 6:09 pm

    Funny, after the reviews I read, even over on lewrockwell.com, I prepared myself to be a little disappointed. But, I was not!

    I think the reason is that most people seem to put a lot of value on whiz-bang stuff. I prefer things like, well, plot for example. I know, that is quaint. Heck, their ain’t a lot of wizardry in “Casablanca” either!

    It’s an excellent movie! Maybe a little rough around the edges – like all the movies in the ’30s, ’40’s and ’50’s that we now enjoy as classics. In fact, it’s just like the book, the ideas are what mattered. But the movie makers were better at what they did than Rand was as an author. Thank heaven!

    I even bought the blond Dagny! And Francisco didn’t bother me either.

  11. ChevalierdeJohnstone
    ChevalierdeJohnstone April 20, 2011 4:55 pm

    I am rarely willing to fork over $12 to see a movie on the big screen, but this is one of the ones I was considering viewing. However, I had yet to see a single useful movie review.

    Until this one. And I thought this was a backwoods survival column?

    Thank you for actually reviewing the movie that was made, rather than whining about how it wasn’t exactly like the book, or didn’t have quite the edited panache that major blockbusters with full studio backing get from the braindead, soulless chimps in Hollywood. Thank you for actually telling us how you felt about the movie that you saw, flaws and all, honestly.

    NOW I am going to go see it.

  12. Bruce Majors
    Bruce Majors April 23, 2011 6:15 am

    The following is an interesting letter from Ludwig von Mises to Ayn Rand dated January 23, 1956 (shortly after the publication of Atlas Shrugged).
    Dear Mrs. Rand:

    I am not a professional critic and I feel no call to judge the merits of a novel. So I do not want to detain you with the information that I enjoyed very much reading Atlas Shrugged and that I am full of admiration for your masterful construction of the plot.
    But Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is also (or may I say: first of all) a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society, a substantiated rejection of the ideology of our self-styled “intellectuals” and a pitiless unmasking of the insincerity of the policies adopted by governments and political parties. It is a devastating exposure of the “moral cannibals,” the “gigolos of science” and of the “academic prattle” of the makers of the “anti-industrial revolution.” You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.
    If this be arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it still is the truth that had to be said in this age of the Welfare State.
    I warmly congratulate you and I looking forward with great expectations to your future work.

    Sincerely,
    Ludwig von Mises

    http://www.isil.org/ayn-rand/von-mises-letter.html

  13. Jim B.
    Jim B. April 23, 2011 6:36 pm

    I’ve just came back from finally seeing the movie. While I won’t say it’s a great movie, I will say it’s a very good movie.

    It seems that while the critics bombed this movie, the public that went, loved it. And it showed in the ticket sales. Apparently their jaws must’ve dropped when they saw the numbers for Atlas Shrugged.

    I do think J.G. shouldn’t have “shown up” like he did in this movie, should’ve gradually appeared more and more as the movies go on. Even the blind can figure out its him.

    I do think there should’ve been one thing more “prominent” in the last scene on the burning fields. The Torch.

  14. Steve Trinward
    Steve Trinward April 24, 2011 9:23 pm

    Due to tight scheduling (and other things, like Sox, Celts, Broons, Preds, ‘Dores and the like), and working nights this month, I’ve had about 2 chances so far to get out to see it, and neither panned out. All my friends who’ve seen it say it’s better than been reviewed, and plan to see it again. I’d say next weekend but that may be filled up with LPTN and MCCSL … One o’ these days I’ll get out to the theater. Discussion here just makes me more determined.

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