In college I was taught that satire isn’t necessarily funny - that it really got its humor, if any, by illuminating a larger social message and from the exaggeration of the social context of which it was parodying. A famous example of this is “Gulliver’s Travels” which was written really as a political and sociological treatise (before Jack Black got a hold of it.)
“Atlas Shrugged” was written as satire - but it doesn’t really anymore exaggerate a larger social context because in its prescience it is our social context - and that may be laughable but it’s really not so funny anymore which is why this film could not have been released at a better time.
The movie is true to the book - at least the first part of it. This is only part one of a projected three. Part I covers about a third of the book. Producer John Agiaoro figured if the market wanted Part II it would tell him - how Randian is that? Let the market decide. Free enterprise at its best.
Agliaoro, committed the first cardinal sin of Hollywood - don’t use your own money - but he had such a passion for this story and initially figured it was a good investment buying the film rights. He didn’t factor in that it would take him nearly twenty years to get it to the screen. After many false starts and false promises, his dream, his vision of bringing Ayn Rand’s dystopian world to film has finally come true.
Screenwriter Brian Patrick O'Toole, not widely known or sold, took on the Herculean task of adapting this well-known material and he did an amazingly good job considering his lack of credit in this genre. Other writers had tried unsuccessfully to tackle this tome with varying degrees of success. I can directly relate to this experience since my script “Devil’s Knot” had several writers before me trying to tell that story unsuccessfully. I can definitely say that taking well-known source material and being the “go-to writer” isn’t the most comfortable role. O’Toole is to be congratulated for rising to the occasion.
Using virtual unknowns for the cast and crew, the film delivers on a persistently accurate vision of the book. You can definitely see these written characters coming alive on the screen.
Taylor Shilling (“Mercy”) is Dagny Taggert a character who probably reflects Rand herself most completely. Shilling is very good in the role as are a slew of talented actors supported admirably by veteran character actors like Michael O’Keefe, Michael Lerner and Jon Polito.
To introduce these characters, an interesting technique was used by which brief spots for all the characters were played out, and then, building the layers upon layers of each character with longer spots as world news flew across the screen, we then saw reactions and actions, if any, that brought us into the heart of each character.
The stakes become higher and higher with this method, as we see Dagny forced to respond and act against the absurdity of the world and what was occurring - the breakdown of society and the collapse of civilization. Dagny (along with character John Galt - actor Paul Johansson) is one of the voices in response to this collapse because people like her own brother (actor Matthew Marsden,) although a multi-millionaire heir to the Taggert railroad, are afraid of people who actually created and moved society and civilization ahead with their inventiveness and courage.
Dagny bring the stakes to a high level when she decides to use a controversial new metal, invented by a kindred soul, Hank Reardon (Grant Bowler) for her rail and rail cars, as well as a rail bridge, to carry cargo and oil from the only place in America producing oil by a revolutionary new method. Her choice makes her an absolute in a world of shadow men.
The production is solid on a budget that can only be described as tiny. In today’s world of mega-blockbusters based on other material as famous as this, ten million dollars would buy you a star’s salary and not much else. How the producers pulled off the scenes they did puts one in deep admiration of the thought and foresight that went into the film. The funny thing is that entire production came together, as with most situations in Hollywood, in a three month period because the producer's option was about to expire. Director Paul Johansson is to be commended fro wringing the most out of what was certainly a tight schedule.
Clever marketing by the producers is pitting this film and its conservative supporters against so-called liberal Hollywood. But everyone should see parts of their philosophies reflected in this film.
Rand herself never fit neatly into anyone’s categories and neither does this story or film. Although Conservatives and Libertarians can claim Rand as one of their own from a less government, free market philosophical standpoint, her open marriage and views on sexuality would cause many of the conservative Christians in these groups to howl in protest today. Word is, the character of Dagny Taggert was considerably sanitized from the book specifically because of this. I'm sure the producer would argue that it wasn't terribly important to the storyline.
“A Clockwork Orange,” “Wag The Dog,” “Network,” and “Dr. Strangelove,” are all examples of terrific social satire that isn’t seen much anymore. “Atlas Shrugged” is destined to fit neatly into that category. Whether it will find an audience passionate enough about it to want more is yet to be seen. But one can only hope it will. We really need more movies that are this well-thought out and well-delivered and give us reasons to think about where we’re taking ourselves and our world for good or ill. These types of conversations go missing more and more as our pundits and journalists become entertainers and not objective moderators of discourse.
You can enjoy this film on many levels. See it and judge for yourself if the millions of dollars and decades producer Agiaoro put into it were worth it. No matter how you feel, I doubt you’ll walk away from this movie unaffected.
In a plastic, vanilla world of cookie-cutter films, that, in and of itself, is reason enough to go.
"Atlas Shrugged" is playing locally at the Regency South Coast Village Theater (link)
OCSWA board member Larry Porricelli contributed to this review.