For whatever reason, the Twin Cities was chosen as one of the first markets in the country for the soft launch of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 , the first installment of a three-part movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s controversial and widely scorned/worshipped (take your pick) novel about the virtues of enlightened self-interest and unfettered capitalism. If there was any conscious thinking behind this decision, it may have gone like this: Minnesota is fond of its railroad barons (James J. Hill), yet it vaulted Prince and Jesse Ventura into the national consciousness, and it puts up with Michele Bachmann—so maybe Minnesota will be kind to a cheaply made, deeply flawed, but oh-so-earnest movie whose primary virtue is that it ever got made at all.
Shot for $10 million, the movie isn’t going to win any awards for artistic achievement. But, like the book it’s based on, it could turn into a cultural touchstone of sorts for millions of people who believe Atlas Shrugged is the true bible of capitalism. Rand’s greed-is-good, damn-the-government, my-way-or-the-highway philosophy resonates with certain kinds of people—greedy ones, mainly—and her insistence that creative high achievers and innovative business mavericks should be able to do whatever they want has, in America, become a corporate battle cry.
Indeed, one of the more interesting dimensions of the Tea Party movement and the broader conservative response to the Obama administration is the resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand’s ideas and books, particularly Atlas Shrugged . Some see in the Obama administration’s policies frightening evidence that Rand’s warnings about the boogie-man of ever-expanding government are coming true, and that the economic turmoil in “welfare states” all over the world (France, Spain, England, Ireland, Greece, etc.) is a real-life unfolding of the economic collapse envisioned (as parody) in Atlas Shrugged .
Another reason for the recent interest in Ayn Rand’s work is that at least one sitting senator, Rand Paul, was nick-named after her; another, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, wrote a recent piece in Newsweek about Rand’s increasing relevance to current politics; Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan has stated that Rand “is the reason I got into public service,”; and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) gives copies of Atlas Shrugged to all his departing interns.
The irony of politicians handing out copies of Atlas Shrugged would not be lost on Rand, but that hasn’t stopped some members of the Tea Party movement from co-opting Rand's ideas—when it’s convenient to them, that is. (TPrs don’t have much use for Rand’s strident atheism, disdain for religion, vehement support of abortion rights, or antipathy toward families.) To be sure, the way Rand’s ideas in Atlas Shrugged are warped and woofed in Washington, one has to wonder if, like the Bible, those who claim the book is so important to them have actually read it .
Most people, including me, read Atlas Shrugged when they are in their late teens and early twenties—in the adolescence of their intellectual development, in other words. Adolescence tends to be a period of narcissistic self-centeredness, and adolescents tend to think they are better and smarter than everyone else, so a book that affirms all of these character traits is naturally appealing. In college, it’s fun to chew on Rand’s counterintuitive logic pretzels, but most people outgrow her—because, as convincing as she can be in the abstract, she doesn’t have much time for love, family, children, illness, accidents, or so many of life’s other messy realities. Still, whatever one ends up thinking about Rand’s ideas, she has to be given credit for trying to articulate an entirely new philosophy (called Objectivism) that explains why the world is the way it is, and how it can be changed.
Until now, however, Rand’s polarizing political ideology hasn’t gained much traction in mainstream politics. But now that people with actual power (like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker) are exercising it in conspicuously Rand-like ways, it seems necessary to engage in a broader, more public discussion of Rand’s work. The scariest part of this exercise isn’t that Atlas Shrugged might be prophetic. It’s that increasingly powerful people who believe it might be prophetic (or claim to) are apparently making important decisions based on this belief. (Though the gauge has yet to be invented that can measure the true depth of hypocrisy and disingenuousness animating some of our most vocal public officials.)
Enter Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 , the movie many people are going to see in order to avoid reading the book. It’s bad enough that warmed-over Randianism passes for political philosophy in some quarters of government. Pray tell what might happen if, say, millions of Americans who want to know what Ayn Rand is all about, but don’t want to wade through a 1000-page book to find out, turn to this movie for answers?
That way, my friends, lies intellectual Armageddon.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future (2016), and opens with a montage of economic apocalypse: gas is $37.50 a gallon, homeless people are everywhere, the country’s infrastructure is crumbling, and train travel is the only affordable transportation (yes, trains). And how did the country arrive at this horrible juncture in history? It’s Rand, so the enemy is of course government and its well-meaning attempts to equalize opportunity, prop up failing companies, feed the poor, and—Rand’s big theme—prevent business tycoons and entrepreneurs from accumulating power, wealth, and prestige.
The main protagonists are Dagny Taggart (played by the icily beautiful Taylor "Mercy" Schilling), who is trying to save the railroad company she inherited by building faster rail lines, and the would-be savior of her company, Hank Rearden (played by chisel-jawed Grant Bowler), who runs a company that makes a new metal so light and strong that it could “change the world.” Their only problem is pesky government scientists who insist that the metal actually be tested before Taggart and Rearden start building bridges with it and hurling people at 200 miles an hour along tracks made of the stuff.
Pity the poor person who walks into this movie without a working knowledge of Rand’s inside-out, fun-house brand of rhetoric. Because if you don’t know Rand, and don’t recognize the code, all you’re going to see is people saying and doing things that make no sense, as if you’ve walked into a movie called “Opposite Day.” For example, even though the streets are filled with homeless people and businessmen are wearing their resumes on sandwich boards, the film makes clear that these aren’t the people who are really suffering. No, the true victims in this crumbling dystopia are the rich and super-rich business tycoons who “do everything,” and are being prevented, by a meddlesome bureaucrats, from implementing their ideas, growing their companies, and reaching their full potential (i.e., making as much money as their talents allow). If you’ve ever wondered where the idea that “tax breaks for the rich” are good for America, this is where it started.
In book form, Rand’s über-capitalism makes a perverse kind of sense, but it takes her hundreds of pages of pugilistic prose to piece together a coherent message. Movies don’t have this narrative luxury, so events onscreen just look and sound crazy. For example, after a dinner celebrating a business victory, a tycoon hears a knock on the door of his mansion in the Colorado mountains. A figure dressed in black—the book’s hero, John Galt—appears, explaining in one sentence that he is building “a society that cultivates individual achievement,” and convinces the tycoon to go with him. Galt’s true mission is to lure away all of society’s great business leaders—to create a nationwide strike of CEOs, basically—so that people will understand that society can’t run without them. But in the movie, it just looks like Galt is a thug who goes door-to-door kidnapping people.
But Atlas Shrugged faces more problems than mere coherence; Rand’s political case is just harder to make now. In today’s America, where one percent of the population controls over half the wealth, it’s tough to argue (though many try) that it’s the rich and powerful who are oppressed, or that thriving corporate entities are being unfairly prevented from doing whatever they please. This might have made more sense in the 1950s, when Atlas Shrugged was written and published, but not now. Now, it’s pretty clear that multi-national corporations and the federal government have partnered exceedingly well to rig the game almost entirely in their favor.
These days, a much more cogent argument can be made that the country’s current economic problems are caused by more-or-less Rand-like ideas implemented since the Reagan administration. After all, it was Rand devotee Alan Greenspan, as chairman of the U.S. treasury for 20 years, whose economic policies helped create both the Internet bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the 2000s. And it was too little regulation of high financiers, not too much, that almost imploded the entire global economy.
True Randians don’t look at it this way, of course. They believe that if unfiltered capitalism were ever tried (that is, if federal and state governments basically disappeared), everything would be better. Unfortunately, the logical extension of Rand’s libertarian extremism looks like a reversion to the good old days when drug companies could claim any damn thing they wanted, children worked in factories, corporate monopolies operated with impunity, and the rich and powerful didn’t have to answer to the hoi polloi for anything. We’ve tried that, non-Randians counter—and it resulted in the Great Depression.
As appealing as some of Rand’s thinking about the primacy of the individual is, however, trying to apply her ideas in today’s world is practically an exercise in nostalgia. Deep down Ayn Rand was a romantic idealist, and she wrote in a much more innocent time, when the nation’s smartest and wealthiest people actually ran companies that produced something. Railroads and steel? It's positively quaint. If you tried Rand’s thought experiment now—by getting rid of the top 100 hedge-fund managers in the country, say—who would even notice? It would be a very short book.
All that said, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is easily the best adaptation of Rand’s work ever put onscreen. But that’s only because previous efforts—a 1949 version of The Fountainhead and two versions of her anti-Soviet tract Anthem —have suffered from being too unintentionally hilarious. In print, the fact that her characters are didactic, paper-thin ciphers for various ideological viewpoints isn’t quite such a handicap, but onscreen it just looks silly.
Rand’s heroes are no guts-no glory visionaries who follow their instincts against all odds, break all the rules, and triumph in the end because . . . they are fictional. Rand’s ideal is a world in which people are guided entirely by “rational self-interest,” but her idealism fractures in the real world because human beings are constantly doing irrational, non-sensical things—like smoking, drinking too much, marrying badly, slacking at work, having sex with strangers, not studying hard enough, starting wars, getting body piercings—that are stupid and self-destructive. Reason is only one of the guiding forces of human behavior, and a small one at that, which is why so much in our world makes so little sense.
Ayn Rand would, I’m sure, be scratching her well-intentioned head over many of the things that are happening in America today. For starters, in her books it’s politicians and government that are the problem—but in real life, it’s Republican and libertarian politicians wearing the cloak of Rand’s philosophy who are stoking the Objectivist fire. They are doing it, they say, to save the republic. But that’s ridiculous, because no self-respecting Objectivist cares one iota about “the people”—it’s just what they say, before they disappear with all the money.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I is showing in these local theaters.