‘ATLAS SHRUGGED: WHO IS JOHN GALT?’ REVIEWED
The film “Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt,” part three of the trilogy, premiered in Las Vegas Sept. 6. The film opened nationwide Friday, Sept. 12.
The goal of the producers is to promote to a wider audience the political insights and philosophy of Ayn Rand, nee Alisa Rosenbaum, the brilliant emigree who fled revolutionary Russia when her family nearly starved in the 1920s after the confiscation of her “bourgeois” father’s business, and who was perceptive enough to see the same disastrous collectivism infecting her adopted land.
Rand’s books — and these films — make it clear there’s nothing wrong with generosity and charity, so long as they’re truly voluntary. The problem arises, she realized, when the ever-more-powerful state masks under its demand that we “share to help our brother man” its schemes to accrue to itself ever more power by seizing the profits of the hard work, enterprise, and inventiveness of the productive class (you know, the “greedy robber barons,”) in order to facilitate the redistribution of those proceeds by blindered bureaucrats to the lazy and the incompetent — a class dubbed the “needy,” whose “needs” can never be met, but which of course grows by leaps and bounds once it figures out it can demand ever more “free stuff” in exchange for its votes.
The stuff isn’t “free.” It’s seized. As their dated work ethic makes suckers of those willing to work hard and gamble their modest wealth in hopes of profit — crippling their efforts with “regulations” and then seizing the dwindling fruit of their labors to be “redistributed” — those virtues get squeezed out. After two generations, Russia and the Ukraine –- once the breadbaskets of Europe — were full of nothing but drunken whiners, standing in line for their weekly ration of lard and a wilted cabbage, while the crops rotted in the fields. Why? Because central bureaucrats will never allocate labor and resources one-tenth as well as a “greedy capitalist” gambling his own cash — and holding out a wad of it for anyone who’ll come pick his tomatoes.
Rand’s genius lay in being able to see once unimaginably prosperous America starting down that same road under the “Progressives.”
If you doubt this, try an experiment in the misguided “altruism” that Rand so controversially (and gleefully) condemned. Commit to a project in which you set up a table on a sidewalk downtown, handing out free sandwiches at lunchtime to anybody who wants one. The first day, you may feed two dozen homeless men, who will presumably be very grateful. Hey, you can afford $100 a day for quite a while, right? But within a week, hundreds of people — including bankers and their secretaries in business attire — will be lining up for your largesse, loudly complaining if you run out of mustard.
Soon, the former workers at once prosperous area restaurants will NEED to join that line, as you will have put their employers out of business. (Who can compete with “free”?) Now imagine you need never go bankrupt — that you could continue to support this endeavor by seizing your NEIGHBORS’ bank accounts with impunity, or buying your sandwich makings with counterfeit cash you print in your basement, while trying to come up with “reforms” to cut your losses . . . without prompting a “food riot.” You might as well put on a red, white, and blue suit, because you’re now “Uncle Sam.”
ENTER THE HUNK
The desire to share these truths with a wider audience is admirable. In the third part of his trilogy, investor and big-time poker player John Aglialoro — who paid more than $1 million in 1992 for what turned out to be a license to raise and spend another $20 million over 20 years on numerous collapsed deals to make of “Atlas Shrugged” a film or TV mini-series built around Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, whoever seemed interested — and director Jim Manera have finally accomplished that. “Who is John Galt?” is easy to follow. It sets forth Rand’s basic themes clearly. It works well as a stand-alone film — you do not need to have seen the first two parts to follow what’s going on. The cast is excellent.
Let me stress that again. Despite obvious budget constraints, the cast here is excellent -– a pleasant surprise. Kristoffer Polaha (TV’s “Ringer’” and “Life Unexpected”) strides confidently through the role of John Galt, and is additionally a considerable hunk, an observation confirmed by witnesses better able to judge that quality than I. Greg Germann is fine as the pathetic James Taggart, as is Peter Mackenzie as smarmy “Head of State” Thompson. If these three are ignored by those who annually honor leading and supporting actors in film, blame politics.
(Leftist Hollywood and much of the statist mainstream press hate Rand with a passion.)
Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan, of TV’s “Mad Men,” this time around), who inherited the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad from her father, struggles to keep this commercial artery of the nation functioning in the face of an endless succession of government schemes to seize her assets, redistributing her rolling stock and profits to her incompetent competitors, whose own main assets are of course their Washington bagmen. Why, to resist would be mere “selfishness”!
Resist she does, even as electrical engineer and inventor John Galt convinces more and more of America’s most productive giants of industry (both Dagny’s customers and her suppliers) to simply disappear, to go on strike against this seizure not merely of their wealth, but more importantly of their precious entrepreneurial talent — their assigned government leeches counting on the fact they’ll “always find a way” to produce. (Rand’s working title for “Atlas Shrugged” was “The Strike.”)
(Galt, it turns out, walked out with his new engine when the Twentieth Century Motor Company was reorganized by the founder’s children on a collectivist model — workers would be paid based not on the value of their contributions, but rather on how pathetic a case they could make for their “needs,” kind of like the old television game show “Queen for a Day.”)
Did I say “this time around”? Unless you can afford to put three films in the can at once — as Peter Jackson mostly did with “The Lord of the Rings” — you can only hold over the cast of a first film with a commitment to play in your second and third films by paying those performers to turn down other offers in the interim. This worked out pretty well for Harrison Ford and his co-stars in “Star Wars.” But the filming of “Atlas Shrugged” in three parts was obviously an ongoing financial struggle, and so the cast changed with each outing, which could make for a dizzying experience if you were ever to sit down and try to watch all five hours of this thing, back-to-back. (Frankly, I think the first Dagny and Francisco — Taylor Schilling and Jsu Garcia — were stronger, but that’s moot, now.)
COLD AS ICE
However, Ayn Rand had a great weakness as a novelist, and it can’t be entirely avoided here. She was an odd duck. She insisted she married Frank O’Connor because he was her ideal man, and further insisted her later affair with young acolyte Nathaniel Branden could be fully justified under the tenets of her philosophy, regardless of the fact both she and Branden were inconveniently married to other people.
Now, if we were to remove from the pantheon any authors who treated their marriage vows as conveniently flexible, or who otherwise showed unfortunate moral lapses, we might not be left with much to read. But if we can assume Rand’s ideal man was architect Howard Roark from “The Fountainhead,” or Hank Rearden or John Galt or some kind of male version of Dagny Taggart from “Atlas Shrugged,” then her claims for Frank O’Connor — from all accounts a handsome, amiable film extra with no great talent or drive, though he did later dabble in painting — are ridiculous, and her claims that her affair with the married young Branden were somehow in keeping with her highest philosophical principles, both pathetic and demented.
The point is, if the self-important and proudly intellectual Ms. Rand had ever once been able to laugh at herself, to bring herself to say, “Philosophy is one thing, but in affairs of the heart we humans are sometimes guided by chemistry, glands, instincts, we sometimes do seemingly irrational things based on biological imperatives we are at a loss to explain, and if that makes you think less of me, bug off,” then some of that ration of wit, emotion, self-deprecation — dare we even ask for “warmth”? — might occasionally have found its way into her novels and her characters.
But she never did, and those qualities hardly ever did, with the result that many readers — women, especially — find her characters and thus her didactic novels about as charming as being thumped again and again about the head and shoulders with a heavy cudgel by a huge Russian matron in a long leather overcoat as she shouts “Now do you understand?! Now?!”
The distribution scheme for this film is wise. It breaks not against the summer blockbusters in July as originally planned, nor against the family “Christmas movies” in late November, but in the “Halloween lull.” They’re reportedly opening on most of the 500 screens where the first two films did their (quite modest) best. All very smart.
Rand fans -– or those who are simply curious about the whole Ayn Rand “Objectivist” phenomenon but who have never been able to drag themselves through a whole book — can count on a professionally produced film with a clear point and recognizable dramatic structure, at a modest one hour and 38 minutes, professionally acted (no amateur theatrics, here), and Kristoffer Polaha to boot.
All that said, this is not a great film, by a long shot: It sometimes even descends into baffling silliness. Yes, yes, budget constraints. But we’re supposed to grasp the relative economic prosperity of the mountain refuge of the strikers from the presence of a modest farmer’s market with some actual vegetables for sale (Wow! Nice radishes!) John Galt explains to a fugitive Dagny Taggart that her Federal Reserve money is no good here, so she offers to work a month for him as a cook and housekeeper. He accepts and throws on the table as an advance on her pay what appear to be several ounces of gold coin. A $3,000 advance? That’s some wage scale! Later she trades what appears to be at least $500 worth of gold for a muffin. Was this film made BY children, or FOR children?
Each of these films has a love scene, and they each seem to be grafted in place to meet some kind of “love scene quota.” (To avoid a dreaded “G” rating, perhaps?) In a day and age when viewers can turn on HBO and see full frontal sex and nudity, these series of quick dissolves of couples who don’t even appear to have removed their undergarments are not so much likely to embarrass the viewers as to make us squirm a bit for the evident embarrassment of the producers. I’ll admit their somewhat goofy abruptness can be a relief in itself. But this one looks so suspiciously like a TV ad that one might suspect director James Manera cut his teeth doing some kind of advertising campaign for Chevrolet. Oh, wait . . .
Am I quibbling? I know “evil” is hard to film, but the notion that we’re supposed to shiver at the evil of the federal cabinet czars as they sit around a table in the hotel dining room, smoking cigars, sipping brandy, and speaking of ”cutting off Minnesota,” is puzzling at best. Would they be less evil if they did it over carrot juice at 10 in the morning? If they chose little Delaware?
(In the book, the Minnesota wheat harvest rots because a cabinet officer generally referred to only as “Kip’s Mom” diverts all the rolling stock southward to rescue her pet project, Louisiana soybeans. It turns out the soybeans are worthless, as well, because they were picked too soon. That, at least, is funny. Hard to film? Frank Capra would have found a way.)
Rand’s book was already dated when it came out in 1957, because it depended on a vision of railroads and steel as America’s great industries — think 1887, or 1927. But at least speeding locomotives and train wrecks make for great cinema, right?
Comin’ round the bend, you know it’s the end
The fireman screams, and the engine just gleams. . . .
Not here. This is a railroad disaster movie without trains. Really. When the script calls for a train speeding cross-country, the camera scans a route map, almost as though someone said “How can we make this thing LESS cinematic”?
In Rand’s book, the mighty Taggart railroad bridge across the Mississippi is a symbol of America’s 19th century entrepreneurial genius. At the end, Roosevelt-Truman henchman Cuffy Meigs seizes Project X, the huge sonic beam weapon being developed by the misdirected State Science Institute, and attempts to use it. It blows up, killing Meigs and his men as well as the beam’s co-opted inventor, while also toppling the great bridge, hundreds of miles away. At least the novel’s denouement had scale.
In the film version, presumably downsized by budgetary constraints, “Project X” becomes “Project F,” a device designed to torture a prisoner by giving him electric shocks. (Whoa! Hi-tech stuff!) They use this to try and break Mr. Polaha, which does at least provide an excuse for the big fellow to take off his shirt. In the end, a rescue is made possible after the gizmo blows a fuse, in part because the entire SSI “Project F” facility seems to be guarded by only a single night watchman, more given to discussing philosophy than sounding the alarm.
Then, as an afterthought, one of the ubiquitous fill-in-the-background TV announcers informs us the Taggart Bridge has fallen down. Omigod! What happened? Termites?
If you can resist giggling at a cut-rate conclusion that could easily have been borrowed intact from an old Roger Corman movie, or the Adam West “Batman” series of the late ’60s, you’re better than me. (Personally, I was looking for the scientist played by Victor Spinetti in the Beatles’ “Help!” to show up, cursing his faulty British equipment and whining that the Americans get the best stuff.)
Finishing this film was a labor of love. Seeing it will give you more to think and talk about than a dozen spooky Halloween sequels. It has an admirable earnestness, but unfortunately not much sense of what most audiences look for in a movie. “Star Wars” it ain’t.
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