Last night I attended the Atlas Society’s sneak preview of the Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 movie — the same preview discussed in the Atlasphere’s recent interview with Producer John Aglialoro.
At the event, the preview was preceded by some notable comments from Aglialoro and others; but the centerpiece of the event was, unmistakably, the ten-minute clip from the film itself.
So how was it?
Very good. Better than I expected. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, as you'll see from my many nitpicks below. Based upon the preview we saw, however, I think this movie will do credit to the novel and to the characters.
Let’s walk through it bit by bit. This is based on my memory of two viewings, plus some detailed notes.
The opening clip from the beginning of the movie was eight minutes long, proceeding from the opening sequence, through Dagny’s initial conference with Jim and then leaving to see Rearden in Philadelphia to discuss the line. The clip then segued into a sort of trailer for the rest of the film.
The preview we saw had temporary special effects which had not yet gone through post production. The opening sequence also happens to be heavy on commercial stock footage and so, with licenses still being finalized, much of the first minute had Getty watermarks and the like.
The version we saw was also missing a score, which, if done right, will add a lot. They spoke of a big orchestral score and revealed that the composer will be Elia Cmiral, who scored the movie Stigmata, among others.
The film opened with a montage: “Dow Jones dropped by 4000” ... “Stock volatility” ... footage of man-on-the-street interviews.
There’s trouble in the Middle East, gas is $34 a gallon, the airline industry has collapsed from want of fuel, and the railroads are now carrying most passenger and freight traffic.
This montage is interwoven with footage of a train tearing through open country. The train footage is quite effective; it’s very kinetic, very thunderous.
The visual style is quite modern. They linger appropriately on machinery and industry, and the footage — of a conductor’s hands on the wheel of the train, on tinder boxes, on track rails, etc. — is very effective.
We see bits of Wesley Mouch, James Taggart, and Ellis Wyatt bickering on television over oil, industry, etc. A lot of exposition was being thrown out.
As the train hurtles past, we see a close up of a split rail on the track ahead. This train is hurtling towards disaster.
Then it cuts to footage of Congress passing the “Fair Pay” act, making it impossible to fire anyone from any company that is still making money. Ragnar Danneskjold appears in a newspaper headline: “Pirate Ragnar Strikes Again.”
Meanwhile, the train continues to hurtle towards disaster and is kicking up some thunder. The conductor sees the split rail and throws the brake, followed by a shower of sparks.
It then cuts to the exterior of a diner, where it’s raining. The graffiti on the wall reads “ON STRIKE,” which seems like a bit of a tell; but no first-time viewer would get spoiled by it, so let’s call it a subliminal hint.
Inside the Diner
A bum enters the diner, takes a booth, and starts swiping the Sweet’N Lows. The waitress asks him if he’s got any money. He says he’s got plenty. She says, “What happened to you, anyway?”
Then we see a close-up of bums face and he says, “Who is John Galt?”
On the TV screens in the diner, we see Taggart and Wyatt being interviewed: “Mr Taggart, your company is one of the few to survive in our current economic downturn, yet there have been dozens of derailments on your lines in the last year alone....”
Wyatt says, “You wouldn’t be going anywhere without oil.”
He and James bicker, and it is pretty personal in tone, with Wyatt lecturing James about how much better his father’s stewardship of TT was. Wyatt scolds him for opening a branch line in Mexico and neglecting his rails here.
Wesley Mouch is on TV talking about the crucial role of government, and how every company must lend a helping hand.
A dapper gentleman enters the diner and picks up a cherry pie. He is chummy with the waitress, saying, “Thank you, dear,” etc.
She says, “See you tomorrow, Mr. Mulligan”
Outside the Diner
“Midas Mulligan?” says a voice, as he walks in the rain.
“Who’s asking?” Mulligan says.
“Someone who knows what it is to work for himself and not to let others profit off his energy,” answers the man.
“That’s funny,” says Mulligan, “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking.”
“We’re alike, you and I,” says the man.
“Who are you?” Mulligan asks.
Then it cuts to the “ATLAS SHRUGGED” title card.
To me, this exchange seemed stilted, and I’m a bit concerned about the screenwriting — not the organization of exposition, which seems to be going fine, but with the handling of iconic moments and the rendering of Rand’s dialogue.
The end of their conversation seemed abrupt, too, with a strange little fadeout. The producers still have months of post-production left to go, however, so I hope the dialogue dub is better-acted and the glitches are worked out.
We hear the sound of a cell phone ringing.
Dagny wakes up on the couch and pads in, in her bare feet, to answer her phone. For my taste, she looks a bit frumpy and “just woke up” for her first scene. But she has her apartment shades moving on a motor, which is kind of cool, and if you’re observant you’ll notice she has a little picture of Ayn Rand taped on her computer monitor.
Eddie is calling her about the wreck. She flips on the TV, sees the destroyed train, and says, “I’ll be right in.”
Thematically, I don’t feel like this is how we should first meet Dagny. Why is she at home asleep while Eddie is already in the office? Does she have to be so frumpy? (And elephants on the couch pillow — really?)
We follow Dagny through the streets of New York. She walks down a trashy street with ripped up roads, down into a subway that needs work.
There’s a bum with a sign looking for a job. Dagny stoicly marches with her briefcase down the subway platform, among the other New Yorkers.
James and Eddie are bickering. People are scared by the wreck and are going to the Phoenix-Durango. They reference Ellis Wyatt, who does not want to deal with Taggart Transcontinental. At one point Eddie says “For Christ’s sake” — which jumped out at me.
I found these two a little disappointing. James has got the look down, but he’s a bit stiff. Maybe the acting choice is for James to seem a bit out of his depth as a railroad president. His best moment in the scene is coldly saying, “Are you accusing me of not doing my job?”
He tells Eddie that “everyone’s expendable,” and at one point Eddie says, “Colorado is our last hope.”
Dagny walks in. “Eddie, will you excuse us? I need a conversation with my brother.” Dagny then tells James he’s “pissing off” the heart of their business — Wyatt.
In terms of the language, clearly this is not your father’s Atlas, and these little things take some getting used to. To me they seemed like touches of naturalism, of “folks next door,” which is not what we go to this book for.
But the scene is competently done, if a bit rushed feeling. Dagny is using Rearden metal, and Dagny will take responsibility. She is going to Philadelphia to finalize the deal with Hank Rearden.
It then cuts to moving trains and a “Philadelphia” title card. Dagny walks into Hank’s office and shakes his hand.
Montage from the Rest of the Film
Then, as a sort of trailer for the movie, we saw a montage from the rest of the film: Dagny has no time for James and his friends in Washington. James sits with Phil Larkin and Wesley Mouch in a restaurant, saying, “If we’re going to bring Rearden down, we should do it from the inside.”
Dagny says to Mowen, “You’ve been working with Rearden Metal for four months now; you know it’s the best material available. What’s going on?” Mowen replies, “We’ve been threatened.” “Who’s threatening you?” Dagny asks.
A man in Rearden’s office says, “The State Science institute is requesting you stop production on Rearden Metal.” Rearden says, “If you have any proof that Rearden Metal poses a threat, show it to me.”
A man on radio says, “They’re not allowing any trains into Colorado.”
Dagny sits in car, saying, “This is madness.”
Wyatt — very pissed at Dagny in her office — says, “Maybe you should let me finish speaking! I will not lower my business standards to your lousy level of incompetence.”
Hank is on the phone with Dagny — apparently calling her from his bathtub — and says, “It’s us who move the world.”
Hank says, “Remember that motor company I told you about in
Wisconsin?” and talks about the prototype of a motor. Dagny replies, “It’s
worth a look.” (The implication here is that they go to the factory looking for
the motor, rather than discovering it by accident. This seems a bit odd, but I
won’t gripe.) Then Hank and Dagny look down rows of files, for the engineer of
that motor firm.
Hugh Akston says, “The secret you are trying to solve is much greater than a motor that runs on atmospheric electricity” — and lifts a cigarette with a dollar sign to his lips.
Dagny talks to Hank about the bridge collapsing. Dagny says to James, “If you double-cross me I will destroy you.”
There’s a gorgeous shot of the Rearden Metal bridge which looks very modern and sleek, like an impossibly delicate filament over space.
Dagny yells “No!” looking at (presumably) the Wyatt fire. Her shout dissolves over a very creepy looking man (Ferris?) smiling blankly and saying, “Who is John Galt?”
And there, the montage ended.
My Preliminary Verdict
Based on this preview, I am hopeful, but my fears are not totally dispelled. Whether the movie is really good or not depends on how they handle the stylistic disconnect between the quasi-naturalism of their storytelling technique and the stylized romantic language of Galt, etc. And that stilted exchange with Mulligan worries me. Visually, however, I think it will be excellent — even innovative.
I think it will be as faithful as a Harry Potter adaptation, which has pitfalls of its own, of course — namely that, in the rush to get everything in, you linger on nothing and so the film becomes a “greatest hits” recap of the book.
The production quality is far higher than I expected; they’ve done a lot with very little money and they definitely “get” the story. So there’s a lot to be hopeful about.
Notwithstanding my criticisms, my expectations have been raised by this preview, and I feel better than I did previously about the project. It looks professional and visually gorgeous. The casting is good, and I look forward to seeing those opening credits in an actual theater.
With Aglialoro at the helm, we could be in far worse hands, and the big picture is that I think we will have 75% or more of our dream Atlas movie. Hopefully with more money and more time for the screenwriting, the second and third parts of the trilogy will be even better, so let’s applaud Aglialoro and his team for getting things off to a good start.
We all know how difficult it has been. The most emotional moment of the night was Aglialoro's heartfelt thanks to his crew. They made this film, from a standing start, in nine months. Coincidentally, that's the same amount of time Dagny had for the John Galt line.I’m a stickler for little details, though. Were it not for some of these details, I would be incredibly excited. As it happens, I may have been able to make a difference in just one detail. After the presentation, I cornered the post-production director and argued they should change the date shown in the opening sequence.
In the opening sequence, over the images of the doomed train, the date appears as “September 2, 2016.” I told him to definitely dump the “2016” or else in ten years the film will seem dated. I think I convinced him that to pin it down to a definite year is a mistake and they shouldn’t do it. We’ll see.
If — when the movie opens on Tax Day April 15th, 2011 — you see a simple iconic “September 2” appear on the screen, with no year, you will know that a lone Atlas Shrugged fan, arm-twisting a production member at a cocktail party, can still make a difference.
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Richard Gleaves is a writer and composer in Astoria, New York.