by Brad Reed
Take Lisa Simpson and combine her with Gordon Gekko and the obnoxious child-android from “Small Wonder,” and you get the perfect Rand hero.
The year is 2016. Eight years of Obammunism have transformed the former capitalist paradise known as “America” into a socialistic hellhole where the Dow Jones Industrial average has plummeted to under 4,000 and where oppressed banking CEOs have to walk around with signs reading, “Will trade credit derivatives for food.” America has gotten so desperate that its only hope for salvation lies in the creation of a (shudder) high-speed rail line.
A sane person would not find this a realistic projection of where America is heading — after all, corporate profits are at record highs, the Dow is back comfortably in the 12,000 range and a Republican congress is insisting we shower the wealthy with still more tax cuts. But then again, the film Atlas Shrugged, Part I is not marketed toward the sane. Rather, it is being pitched to the disciples of Ayn Rand, the sociopathic champion of capitalism who penned three-billion-page novels dedicated to the proposition that selfishness was the world’s greatest virtue.
For the uninitiated, Atlas tells the story of a future oppressive liberal government that chokes off the productivity of strong-headed individualists in the name of equality and fairness. The story’s two protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon, are respectively heads of railroad and steel companies who find their grand ambitions thwarted by the paws of Big Gubmint. Eventually the poor rich people decide to go on strike and retreat to a small-government greedtopia headed up by a reclusive billionaire named John Galt. Without these super-productive rich people keeping the world moving, society proceeds to completely collapse.
You may be wondering what it was that Dagny and Henry were doing prior to the strike that was just so goshed-darned awful that Big Gubmint had to stop them. The answer is they were building the world’s fastest high-speed rail line. Yes, rail. The mode of transportation that has been championed by liberal commie Nazis and that has become the bane of good salt-of-the-earth conservatives everywhere. In reality, of course, a liberal government would be tossing bundles of subsidies at any entrepreneurs building high-speed rail lines in the Western United States but in Randality, these noble entrepreneurs were crushed by the rent-seeking big businesses who used their Washington ties to extinguish the flames of competitive markets.
So okay, we’ve already established that the story has a ludicrous premise, but have the film’s creators managed to make this ludicrous premise into a compelling and entertaining narrative?
In three words: “Oh, hell no.”
Indeed, the film’s major problem is that it adheres too tightly to its source material, making it impossible to create compelling characters. This is because all of Rand’s heroes and heroines are soulless greedbots whose only goals in life are to make great innovations and then profit like crazy off them. In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing since a lot of people like creating things and being rewarded for them. But in the case of Rand’s characters, their desire for money and achievement supersedes all empathy, family relationships and basic human decency. Take Lisa Simpson and combine her with Gordon Gekko and the obnoxious child-android from “Small Wonder,” and you get the perfect Rand hero.
Given this, I was initially prepared to be lenient on lead actors Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler, who respectively portray Dagny Taggart and Henry Reardon. After all, no actor can give a convincing and emotionally compelling portrayal of a Rand character anymore than they can give a convincing and emotionally compelling portrayal of a stop sign or a potted plant. You can imagine all the times director Paul Johansson had to yell “Cut!” at Schilling and Bowler because they had errantly expressed a feeling.
Even so, one of the very first things that competent directors and actors do with any material is to establish the stakes involved. In other words, when a character says a line such as “There is so much at stake, we have to make it,” it should be delivered with more urgency and intensity than the guy in stoner comedies who asks, “Dude, you got any chips?” Needless to say, the actors failed even this simple test, creating unintentionally hilarious scenes like the one where Bowler tells his lonely socialite wife that “I didn’t come here for sex” in the robotic same tone that the Terminator says “I’ll be back” to his enemies.
And speaking of sex, Taggart and Reardon’s sex scene is unusually awful because we’re watching two characters who haven’t shown any emotions for the film’s first 70 minutes suddenly try to be tender with one another. It’s the equivalent of Emperor Palpatine ambling over to Darth Vader after the two of them just finished slaughtering a room full of Jedi and asking meekly for a hug. The scene isn’t at all helped by the schmaltzy piano-and-strings soundtrack that’s meant to conjure up romantic passion but that seems wildly out of place in a Rand story. In fact, the scene could have come across as more believable if the directors had just decided to play some German industrial metal in the background to let us know that Dagny and Reardon were approaching copulation with the same level of unsentimental brutality that’s helped them succeed in the business world.
Poorly written characters can’t totally doom a film if they’re at least given something interesting to do — after all, Star Wars fans who suffered through Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace were at least rewarded with a kick-ass light-saber fight at the end of the film. Unfortunately, the most thrilling conflicts in Atlas Shrugged revolve around disputes over ore shortages and the quality of assorted railroad metals.
And this is the most telling aspect of the film’s greatest failure: That I jumped for joy whenever one of its greedheads decided to drop out of society and head to Galt’s Gulch. Because let’s be honest, would any of us really shed a tear if Donald Trump, Lloyd Blankfein or the Koch brothers decided tomorrow to pull up their stakes and head to the Cayman Islands? If my time here on Earth has shown me anything it’s that even when some greedy assholes drop out of the game there will always be other greedy assholes eager to replace them. Any threats they make on leaving us swarthy looters to our own devices should cause us to collectively shrug.
Brad Reed is a writer living in Boston. His work has previously appeared in the American Prospect Online, and he blogs frequently at Sadly, No!.