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Editor's Note: This review was first published in the Summer 2011 Atlas Society Newsletter, and has been updated.
We always knew the reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 would be hostile. When Ayn Rand’s novel was published in 1957, critics on both left and right attacked it savagely. The novel challenged not only the politics of the mixed economy and welfare state but also the ethics of altruism, in both its religious and its secular (egalitarian) forms. So it was equally predictable that the film—which is true to the novel in conveying those themes—received the same treatment when it premiered last April 15.
At the same time, the novel was a huge popular success, an immediate best-seller, revealing the stark disparity between the intelligentsia and the wider public. Bennett Cerf, Rand’s publisher at Random House, said, "In all my years of publishing, I've never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!" Atlas Shrugged tapped a deep vein of individualism and the distinctively American “Don’t tread on me” spirit. In the last few years, as increasing numbers of people feel trod upon by burgeoning government, sales of the novel and references to it in the media have reached unprecedented levels. Publicity surrounding the film added yet another boost to sales.
Will the film repeat the history of critical disdain but commercial success? That remains to be seen. The initial theatrical run was disappointing. As an independent film, with a very limited budget for production and less for promotion, producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow relied chiefly on social media and advance screenings for sympathetic groups. After a successful opening weekend, however, box office results declined steeply. Audiences overwhelmingly liked the film, but apparently word-of-mouth did not spread far enough.
But there is no question about the critical disdain. Indeed, I have to admit that I underestimated the degree of relentless, over-the-top vituperation, mockery, and hostility the critics would evince. Nor did I expect them to abandon so completely the standards of film-reviewing.
As expected, many critics reacted not merely to the film but to the themes of Atlas Shrugged as such, novel and film, and to the philosophy of Objectivism they express. Here is Michael Phillips, a prominent critic for the Los Angeles Times:
Conceived as the first of a proposed three-part series, director Paul Johansson's movie is the work of true believers in Rand's pet theory known as Objectivism, which can be described as "Us? There is no 'us'!" In Rand's worldview it's me-time, all the time. The capitalistic visionaries among us have been hounded and taxed and ground down so relentlessly by the federal government and other societal evils, there's nothing to do but blow the whole thing up and start anew, in a civilization run by the mysterious John Galt, who respects the rapacious dog-eat-dog nature of humankind and the sexy, life-enhancing virtues of unfettered economic competition
That is Phillips’s entire summary of the main plot and theme of the film. Leaving aside the ugly sarcasm, let us count the errors. The strikers do not “blow up the whole thing”; they simply withdraw so that society has to live with the consequences of its own practices and moral principles, and confront the fact that parasites and looters can’t survive when the victims are gone. The meaning of the strike, moreover, is not revealed until Part III of the novel and is only hinted at in Atlas Shrugged Part 1. Phillips is obviously not just reviewing the film but targeting Rand and Objectivism in toto.
Finally, and most importantly, Rand did not believe “there is no us,” much less advocate “dog-eat-dog” egoism. She could not have made it clearer that she did not believe in sacrificing others to self. Running throughout the novel, the film, and every other statement of the philosophy is the message of justice: Respect the rights of others and deal with them by trade, exchanging value for value as independent equals. It is the villains, not the heroes, who fit Phillips’s description. For example, the “Anti-dog-eat-dog” bill, which forced a competing railroad out of business, was engineered by James Taggart and his cronies. Dagny is horrified by the injustice: “The Phoenix/Durango is a good line, Jim. Dan Conway put his entire lifeblood into its success.”
Most of the reviewers in major media wrote with the same tone of snarky, evasive condescension as Phillips, avoiding any effort to describe the central moral conflicts in Atlas Shrugged except in the form of dismissive epithets that repeat the usual myths about Rand. For example:
· Roger Ebert, Chicago Tribune: “[Ayn Rand’s] philosophy reduces itself to: "I’m on board; pull up the lifeline."
· Carina Chocano, New York Times, on Hank and Dagny: “He’s just happy to be with someone who hates humanity as attractively as he does.”
As Walter Donway noted in a Facebook essay on Chocano’s review, “One of the strangest things about the reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is that they never name or describe what they are attacking, but make it unmistakably clear that they know.” What they are attacking, of course, is Rand’s new concept of egoism: that one’s own life is an end in itself, and that virtue and honor do not permit sacrifice to others, much less require it.
Many critics also reacted to the romantic portrayal of achievers as heroes. “Upright railroad heiress Dagny Taggart and upright steel magnate hero Hank Rearden,” sneered libertarian humorist P. J. O’Rourke, “are played with a great deal of uprightness….” Several reviewers made fun of Hank Rearden’s line in a phone call from Dagny, “What we’re doing—my metal, your railway—it’s us [sic] who move the world….” They cited the line without explanation as too ludicrous for words (and not because of the grammatical lapse). That scene never fails to move me; actor Grant Bowler perfectly captured Rearden’s quiet confidence and his deep sympathy for a troubled comrade. I can only assume that the reviewers simply cannot conceive of business people as heroes. Ebert complains, in the same vein, “The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily. Much of the excitement centers on the tensile strength of steel.” Well, yes. That’s what the story is about. Ebert’s attitude is a throwback to the 19th-century intellectuals like Thomas Carlyle who reacted with horror to the new world of industry and commerce, unable to grasp the spiritual element in material production, the fact that increasing the tensile strength of steel is an exercise of intelligence, imagination, courage, integrity, and discipline.
With few exceptions, the critics also attacked the cinematic quality of the film. The reviewers most hostile to its themes also tended to issue blanket attacks on the acting, script, camera work, score, etc., speaking as aesthetic oracles without explanation or evidence. Some of these judgments were simply bizarre. Timothy Farmer in Filmstage, to mention just one example, said “there is absolutely no chemistry between the characters.” No chemistry? Did he see the same film I did? Over and above the electric charge between Taylor Schilling (Dagny) and Grant Bowler (Hank), I saw had great ensemble acting in virtually every scene.
As someone partly involved in the production, I know all too well the severe limitations of time and money that the producers and their team had to deal with; there are a number of things that could have been done better with more time and money. But every time I see the film I am struck anew by its cinematic quality, from acting, to cinematography, to the pace of the narrative. To be sure, the background history of the production is irrelevant to film’s aesthetic merit as a work of art, and my knowledge of the background and hopes for the best outcome make it hard to be fully objective. By the same token, however, I discount the negative reviews that harp on the background, as did Variety’s Peter Debruge, who complained about “this hasty, low-budget adaptation,” the “relatively inexperienced helmer [director] Paul Johansson,” and “an ensemble of unfamiliar thesps [actors].” So what? The lack of a big budget, a major studio, or A-list stars no more impugns the aesthetic merit of the film than it excuses its flaws.
Were the critics out to get the film, to deprive it of the audience needed for greater box office success? I don’t like to attribute motives, beyond observing the obvious herd instinct of like-minded culturati. But you have to wonder when you see critics gloating at the box-office decline after the first weekend (Alex Parene, Salon: “The market, in its infallible wisdom, declares Ayn Rand boring”). A number of hostile reviews went out of their way to claim that the film does not measure up to the book and will disappoint fans of the book. Coming from people like Roger Ebert who are obviously not sympathetic to the book, this looks like an effort to discourage would-be movie-goers.
And the sheer scale of repeated Atlas-bashing is also revealing, a point well made by Robert Bidinotto on his blog:
Ask yourself how many other "mediocre" or even "bad" films have ever generated this level of untempered wrath, raging vituperation, incessant insults, and unrestrained gloating over their artistic or commercial shortcomings. Does this not suggest that something much deeper is going on?
If the film's critics (professional and amateur) truly believed that it was merely mediocre, then what explains their unrelenting, over-the-top spewing of venom? Similarly, if Rand and her ideas were simply silly, wouldn't her intellectual opponents just dismiss her lightly, without such ado?
Regardless of their intent, did the critics in fact kill the movie? No. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. The producers have begun international distribution with a release in Canada, and have a deal with the In Demand consortium for a video-on-demand release. The DVD and Blu-Ray versions are selling briskly Aglialoro is also committed to going forward with Part II. “The only thing the critics killed,” says Aglialoro, “is their credibility as professional, objective reviewers.”
Atlas Shrugged is an enduring work because its themes are timeless. Atlas Shrugged Part 1 gives us our first cinematic glimpse of those themes, and I think it will endure as well. But its fate may be more like that of The Fountainhead, whose sales grew slowly through word-of-mouth, than like that of Atlas Shrugged itself, published when Rand was already recognized as a major novelist. On whatever scale, at whatever speed, the film will continue to expose new people to Objectivism, and we at The Atlas Society will continue to focus on helping people make the connection from the film to the philosophy.
Meanwhile, it is beyond doubt that film has achieved one superlative success. The reaction of the critics shows how threatened our cultural leaders are by the ideas of Atlas Shrugged, and how evasive they have to be in attacking it. The film obviously touched a nerve—a pain nerve—and it is a great credit to Aglialoro to have fashioned the scalpel.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.