The new film adaptation of the first part of Atlas Shrugged stays remarkably close to the source material and, by virtue of this fact, yields an outstanding movie. Despite a modest budget and a rushed production timeline, the movie works, racing with breathtaking speed through the first third of Ayn Rand’s classic novel.
The movie’s most significant deviation from the novel occurs in the opening scenes. A montage of cable news shots describe the Dow falling to 4000, the Mideast having “imploded,” gasoline at $37.50/gallon, air and automotive travel having collapsed, and railroads having re-emerged as the most important form of long distance transportation — not only for cargo but also for passengers.
This clever plot device enabled the filmmakers to preserve Rand’s 1950s-era economy of rail and steel, for a faithful adherence to the plot of the original novel, while also allowing the story to be set in the near future, complete with plasma screens, computers, and cell phones.
The opening scenes make clear that the continued survival of the nation’s economy hinges upon Taggart Transcontinental’s successful operation. A cable TV feed presents a three-way interview with oil entrepreneur Ellis Wyatt, James Taggart, and Wesley Mouch. In the midst of an economic apocalypse, oil magnate Wyatt has birthed an industrial renaissance in Colorado and is furious with Taggart’s negligent service. The replies from Taggart and Mouch establish their characters, as well as their conflict with Wyatt.
Another significant deviation arises in the treatment of the strike, as key leaders in industry, finance, and the arts are mysteriously vanishing. A major hook in the early part of the novel is the developing realization that a “destroyer” of some sort is at loose, somehow removing these elite figures from society. There’s no such mystery in the movie: We see a shadowy John Galt recruiting strikers with a line or two of persuasion.
The trailer presents Galt’s encounter with Midas Mulligan from the opening minutes of the movie, and there are similar encounters throughout the film. As each striker vanishes, the color fades to black and white, and titles indicate their name, position, and the date they vanished. Subtle, it isn’t.
Also in the opening moments, a locomotive races through the night toward disaster, behind a title slide informing us that the year is 2016. My initial reaction was negative: How dare the producers set a specific date on Rand’s timeless story? Upon further reflection, however — given the use of dates in newspapers and particularly in the dramatic washes to black and white of each striker as they vanish — I do believe this was justified.
To understand the movie, one must first acknowledge that a movie is not a novel. Rand might present pages of elegant, intricate verbal ripostes and parries between her characters, gradually building up dramatic tensions to a stunning climax. Instead, the movie has a couple of punches followed by a knockout blow. Exchanges between characters are dramatically simplified, streamlined, and essentialized.
This comic-book-level dialogue may disappoint some fans, but may have been inescapable, in order to compress the source material and meet the time constraints of the movie format. Paradoxically, despite the tremendous simplifications to the narrative, the complexity of the plot remains almost overwhelming, by virtue of its close adherence to the novel.
The relentless compression of a third of Rand’s novel into a 106-minute production meant ruthless omission of minor subplots. Richard Halley and his music are gone. The mystery of the dollar-sign cigarettes reduces to a passing shot of Hugh Akston lighting one. The rich background of Dagny, James, and Francisco, and their childhoods together, is entirely absent. A flashback scene of Dagny and Francisco was cut from the final production.
Many characters — Dan Conway, Ragnar Danneskjold, Balph Eubank, Bertram Scudder, Lawrence Hammond, and Ted Nielsen — are only mentioned in passing.
The character of Cherryl Brooks was cast, but is missing from this part of the movie; screenwriter Brian O’Toole says he “has great plans” to introduce her in part two. Owen Kellog and Herbert Mowen have brief appearances, but the scene in which Kellog appears as a laborer and discusses the exodus to Colorado with Mowen was cut.
This flaw could be remedied in the second part of the trilogy, however, and meantime we can hope for an extended “director’s cut” version on the DVD.
Despite the film’s rushed feel, the dialogue and acting were remarkably solid, even brilliant, at times. Taylor Schilling’s cold and unemotional Dagny Taggart stares down her arrogant brother James (ably played by Matthew Marsden) to save their family’s railroad, yet relaxes with, warms to, and ultimately allows herself to be seduced by, Grant Bowler’s Hank Rearden.
The heart of the movie for me was Grant Bowler’s flinty portrayal of steel tycoon Hank Rearden. I’ve never understood the criticism of Ayn Rand’s characters as two-dimensional. Rearden is a brilliant and dedicated industrialist who fails to apply the same standards to his personal life. He enables his family’s misbehavior, allowing them to shamelessly mock and undercut him. See, for instance, the released clip above.
Bowler’s Rearden is as eminently heroic as he is tragically flawed. The power of Bowler’s acting is enhanced further by Rebecca Wisocky’s amazing performance as his wife, Lillian. Wisocky’s Lillian is as beautifully elegant as she is viciously vile. Wow!
Many challenging aspects of the plot — including Dagny’s trade of a diamond necklace for Lillian’s Rearden Metal bracelet and Dagny’s growing romance with Rearden — were carried off flawlessly due to the excellent script and strong acting.
Another pillar of the film is Graham Beckel’s Ellis Wyatt. He is an elemental force of nature barreling into Dagny’s office, yet becomes warmly gregarious as he recognizes kindred spirits in Dagny and Hank. Despite having tragically little screen time, Jsu Garcia makes mysterious playboy Francisco D’Anconia come to life. I can’t wait to see more of him in part two. Edi Gathegi’s Eddie Willers and Nikki Klecha’s Gwen Ives also delivered solid support.
While the settings and scenes were visually lush, the rushed production and limited budget did leave a few rough edges. For instance, the Taggart Transcontinental System map was geographically confused, the “Taggart” train was really Union Pacific — though you’d have to be a train buff to spot it — and the Reardens’ and Taggarts’ limos were the same vehicle.
Similarly, the strong script was marred by poorly vetted, last-minute changes in dialog. Did the audience really need to know that Galt’s motor “employs the Casimir effect to accelerate Helium3 nuclei, creating a magnetic field that couples to atmospheric vacuum, thus extracting static electricity”? Only a John Galt could make sense of that technobabble. On the other hand, creative little flourishes — like Gwen Ives’s innovative filing system, though not in Rand’s novel — helped further character development with economy and skill.
A viewer determined to nitpick the film will find no shortage of material. In fact, I was so concerned with picking out the minor flaws that it seriously detracted from my appreciation the first time around. When I relaxed and watched the movie the second time, I found it much more enjoyable.
The film’s flaws are due much more to the rushed production than the modest budget. I can’t wait to see what the producers will be able to do in part two, with a more relaxed schedule and, hopefully, more generous financing.
Despite the occasional rough edge, Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is a great movie, true to Ayn Rand’s classic novel. This exciting, fast paced, and breathtaking romp provides an easy introduction to Ayn Rand’s ideas. Inspired viewers will then be motivated to read the novel, to satisfy their burning desire to learn more.
Hans Schantz is CTO of the Q-Track Corporation, the leader in low-frequency, long-wavelength real-time location systems. Author of The Art and Science of Ultrawideband Antennas (Artech House, 2005), he is also an inventor on over 30 patents. Dr. Schantz blogs at www.aetherczar.com and is @AetherCzar on Twitter. All images are courtesy of The Strike Productions ©2011.