Atlas Winced

Ayn Rand's work has been described as "a sermon with a cast", and now, after 60 years, it finally has one.  Paul Johanssen, whose directorial credits mostly include episodes of CW teen drama "One Tree Hill", has now brought Atlas Shrugged to the Silver Screen.  This week, I got hold of a screener--and found that the director seems to have interpreted this quip as a mandate.

I'm actually quite fond of Atlas Shrugged, though not in the way most libertarians are: it tickles the same spot of fancy that makes me enjoy Soviet Realist art and Chinese Communist musicals.  Plus Ayn Rand actually had a quite sophisticated grasp of the ways in which markets break down when the government hamfistedly starts mucking around in them--not particularly surprising, since Rand, who was born in Russia, watched her father start and lose several businesses under the Bolsheviks.  I still take Atlas Shrugged to the beach with me when I want something nice to doze with under the sun.

And it isn't that Atlas Shrugged couldn't possibly make a good movie.  To be sure, it is the size and weight of a pretty solid doorstop, filled with approximately 1 squillion characters, and almost as many sub-plots.  But the same could be said of Lord of the Rings, which made a terrific trilogy.

That's the approach that the director took with Atlas Shrugged--the screener I was sent was merely for Part I.  I wish I could report that the movie holds out the same kind of promise that the first Lord of the Rings movie did.  Unfortunately, it's . . . how do I say this . . . an incoherent mess that put me less in mind of Peter Jackson than Tommy Wisseau.  It was a huge mistake to watch it on a laptop; I spent the entire time fighting a nearly overpowering urge to check my email.

I know that some Rand fans who like the movie are going to accuse me of sucking up to my liberal cocktail-party attending friends by unfairly slamming a damn fine film.  The sad truth is that I don't attend that many cocktail parties--certainly not as many as the people in this film.  Ayn Rand's characters are already so understated as to be nearly wooden--her sensibility was heavily influenced by the "strong but silent" aesthetic of the penny adventure serials of her youth.  And in the hands of these actors, they're practically petrified.  In lieu of emotions, the entire cast seems to have turned to drink.  Half the action takes place over a glass of wine or a tumbler of whiskey.  I suppose this is what you have to expect from a roomful of rigid, controlling people who have difficulty speaking about any emotions that don't involve metallurgical studies.

Of course, "action" is a strong word.  Most of these scenes consist of people drinking in hotel lobbies, drinking at restaurants, drinking at cocktail parties, and drinking in their bedrooms.  In between, they do a little bit of striding purposefully.  Also, sometimes they sit behind improbably neat desks.  When drama is required, they stand up.

I feel bad being this mean about the movie.  Mean reviews are cheap currency for a reviewer; they're easy and fun to write, while it's hard to find interesting and original ways to say "I liked it".  But in this case, it's more than justified.  Acting an Ayn Rand movie well would require extraordinary control and nuance; the actors either don't get it, or don't have the skill to convey it.  Filming it well would require imagination to capture the combination of WPA mural and noir that forms the backdrop for her novels; the director and the art director either lacked the imagination, or the budget.  Writing it well would require deft judgement as to how to translate Rand's rather preachy dialogue into something plausible and compelling.  The writers either . . . well, here's a sample.

"Robert McNamara?"
"I'm Robert McNamara.  What are you selling, pal?"
"Nothing. I'm simply offering a society that cultivates individual achievement.  I know where such a place exists."

At the sound of this, my husband's head popped up.  "He really said that?" he asked incredulously.  And in a tone of even greater wonder  "And someone else wrote it??"  It is sort of breathtaking to contemplate the chain of events that had to occur for those words to end up blaring improbably from my laptop speakers.

Believe it or not, this is far from the worst dialogue in the movie--the farewell of Ellis Wyatt is much, much worse, and also, manages to step on one of the best lines in the book.  Did I say "step"?  The line was flung down and danced upon.

The worst part is that the movie is a bad caricature of what people think that libertarians believe.  The genius of capitalism is nowhere to be found--in this movie, "business" mostly consists of shuffling papers around a desk, telling your fellow capitalists how great they are, and instantly promising to deliver metal for a railroad bridge without probing trivial matters like how much metal will be required, when and where the bridge will be built, and how much the customer might be willing to pay. This makes the capitalists who go on strike seem very little different from the "looters" in Washington who they are supposed to be fighting: they're all a bunch of pompous windbags delivering prim little lectures to each other.  The only real difference is that in the middle of the movie, the capitalists get to ride a cool CGI train.  

Of course, Rand's many critics will claim that this is all there was in the book.  But that's not true.  The movie left out the things that could have made it gripping: the aesthetic that deftly mixes comic books, film noir, and WPA murals; the reverance for genius and innovation; the stories that dramatize pure principle.  These things are barely name checked, much less used.  The best stories--like the nationalization of the San Sebastian mines, or the attempt by the 20th Century Motor Company to run its business along the lines of the communist motto "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"--are compressed into two lines, explained ineptly.

Indeed, much of the time, the movie seems less like a story than a sort of visual concordance for Atlas Shrugged.  Each element is religiously mentioned, but very little of it is adequately explained, much less dramatized.  I suspect that for people who haven't read the book, the result is incomprehensible.  What remains is a bunch of self-impressed windbags boring each other over drinks.  I live in Washington DC.  At least around here, that sort of thing is a live event, not movie material.

There could have been a great movie made out of Atlas Shrugged.  For that matter, there may still come a day when such a movie is made.  But to quote the trilogy I did like--this is not that day.