So even before I get into any of this, a little disclosure is in order. I’ve never read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and I only know it mostly from reputation. My main interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism is mostly secondhand. That comes from being a huge comic book fan and in particular a very huge fan of comic creator, Steve Ditko, who’s best known for being the co-creator of Marvel’s Spider-Man. Ditko is an extreme devotee to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and his devotion started to show in work that he did for Charlton Comics in the late 60s, primarily through his creation, The Question. Once Ditko left Charlton with editor Dick Giordano to go to DC Comics, some of these themes continued in his creations of The Creeper and Hawk and Dove. They really came to the forefront though in Ditko’s creator-owned work, first and foremost with his creation Mr. A. Ditko’s passion for this philosophy is unbridled in his creator-owned work, and even to this day it continues in the small press projects that he self-publishes with editor Robin Snyder. This philosophy runs counter to that shown in most comics today and for a lot of readers out there, it’s stilted and old-fashioned. Personally speaking though, I find it admirable that Ditko is still out there doing his thing even though it goes either unnoticed or just plain deemed as crazy by the majority of the comic readership. When I was younger and reading these works, I have to admit, I didn’t quite get it, but as I’ve gotten older and have come back to them, I have to say, they do “speak” to me.
I’ve tried to take the time to better understand Rand and Objectivism, and for the most part, I think I get it and agree with most of it, though some of it’s finer points have run counter to certain events in my life that I won’t go into here. For those that are true scholars of Objectivism that might read this, well, I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, so my review here could certainly be full of holes.
I was curious to see Atlas Shrugged: Part I after seeing it reviewed (negatively I might add) on Ebert Presents At The Movies. I’ve since seen it twice thanks to Netflix, and actually enjoyed the movie though it’s not perfect by any means. In brief, the time is 2016 and the United States has fallen into major economic collapse. Increasingly high gasoline prices have made railroad travel the most affordable way to move about the country. The leader in the field is Taggert Transcontinental run by siblings James and Dagny Taggert. James is more of a figurehead leader willing to do the bidding of the government while his sister, Dagny, is more the driving force that keeps the railway going. Dagny is being forced to use an inferior grade of steel, but rejects that in favor of wanting to use a new metal developed by steel magnate Hank Reardon. Reardon is keeping the secret of the alloy’s development to himself which sparks jealousy amongst his competitors and in turn is denounced by the government as being inferior. Dagny knows better though and enters into a partnership with Reardon to keep the railway going and successful despite government meddling. Dagny and Hank’s relationship moves beyond a business partnership as both see each other as kindred spirits. All the while, in the background prime movers of industry, science and the arts are mysteriously disappearing with a key phrase connected to each; “Who is John Galt?”
Now there is of course way more to this than what I’m describing, it is after all adapted from an 1,000+ page novel, so of course there’s way more going on in the background and way more facets to each character than what I’m simply describing above. My main complaint with the first film is that it’s a little too short considering the themes that it’s dealing with and the amount of set-up that it has to do. But still I think there’s a certain amount of fire and energy to it that I found very attractive as well as the performance by actress Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggert. The first film was a tremendous flop at the box office, and I think that’s a shame but also understandable. I honestly didn’t think that a Part 2 was going to be coming, so obviously I was quite surprised when I heard it was coming this past July.
With Atlas Shrugged: Part II the film’s producers have an increased budget allowing for a little more in the way of production design (and these are considered low-budget films by Hollywood standards) and I think it’s got a good look to it. But, they’ve also had to re-cast the entire film and none of the actors from the first film are in the second with one little exception; that being actor Graham Beckel who played oil industrialist Ellis Wyatt in the first film and only showing up here as a photo image shown on a newscast after his mysterious disappearance at the end of Part I. For the most part, I think the new cast actually works better than what the original did, with one exception and that being Samantha Mathis who’s now been cast as Dagny Taggert. Mathis’ performance here is serviceable but she just looks tired in the part, though some of that is entirely understandable due to the nature of things that happens to Dagny’s character. I understand that it was just going to be impossible for the producers to get Taylor Schilling to reprise the role and that’s a shame (though Schilling can also be seen real briefly in another new movie this weekend, Argo where she’s seen at the end as Ben Affleck’s wife). I do think that Mathis does the best that she can, and if she’s retained for Part III I’d expect a more memorable performance by the end.
Two improvements to the new cast though are Jason Beghe as Hank Reardon and Esai Morales as Francisco d’Anconia. Beghe in particular stands out to me. In the first film, Hank Reardon is described as a ruthless businessman and you definitely get that more here than what you got from Grant Bowler in the first film who’s way more affable there. Beghe’s Reardon is a tough guy who’s definitely firm in his principles and it’s especially on display when the character is put on trial for defying government orders. Esai Morales is definitely more effective than Jsu Garcia was in the first film and I couldn’t even begin to imagine Garcia giving the driving delivery that Morales does to Beghe during another key moment in the film.
Atlas Shrugged: Part II is directed by John Putch, who’s best known for directing a variety of different TV shows. Putch keeps this moving at a pretty even clip and the feel to building something even bigger permeates through the whole movie. One scene in particular that was both very effective and even a little scary to me involved the Head of State (the new term here for President) handing out an overwhelming new directive that effectively changes the way the country does business and for the worse. The biggest compliment that I can pay to Putch though is that by the time he gets to the film’s conclusion, I was immediately ready to see Part III. Now as to the down side, even though I do agree with a lot of the new casting choices, I can also see that as being disconcerting to those that greatly like the first film and speaking of that, I think it’s also an absolute necessity to see the first movie in order to truly appreciate all that’s going on here. Putch does his best with Part II to make it accessible, but I only think it will be that way to those who can really appreciate the source.
One thing that I find refreshing here is the positive portrayal of business magnates. For most Hollywood movies, big business is the big villain, with the only real difference being in the portrayals of the main characters in the super-hero movies (those being Anthony Stark in the Iron Man films and Bruce Wayne in the Batman movies). Characters like Dagny Taggert and Hank Reardon are to me anyway, Stark and Wayne without the costumes.
In the end, I really enjoyed Atlas Shrugged: Part II even more than the first film and now just hope that Part III gets made. Even without having read Rand’s book, I tend to think that her philosophy is accurately represented in these films. In my day job, I’m a graphic artist and illustrator and I tend to take great pride in my work and strive to get even better with it all the time. The principles of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy “speak” to me in this way, and as such, so does this film. Even though this is opening in more theatres than the first film, I still expect this to be seen as a commercial failure though I’m keeping my fingers crossed to see the answer on screen to the question, “Who is John Galt?”