Second look: 'Atlas Shrugged: Part 2'

Critics, Journo-listas still largely miss the point.

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2012 – “Atlas Shrugged: Part II’ hit the theaters two weeks ago, getting the expected drubbing from left wing movie critics (all of them). Though few in number—rather than actually watch the movie, most critics took a pass apparently—these negative reviews, largely pre-written, predictably miss the point and miss the story entirely.

Critics to the left of me…

Here’s the opening paragraph of the Village Voice review:

“In interviews, producer Harmon Kaslow has called this film ‘an opportunity for swing voters to see what’s going on back in D.C. and help activate them to vote President Obama out of office.’ The analogy to today is imperfect. Randland runs entirely on trains, there’s a subplot about a near-magic energy source straight out of the Iron Man movies….”

Key takeaways: “Randland’s” train is obsolete, and the film’s (and the novel’s) mysterious “near-magic energy source” as so much comic book hooey. First of all, what is it with the train thing here? This meme is echoed in an equally vapid Hollywood Reporter hit piece:

“Ultimately, if a convincing, updated version of Atlas Shrugged were to be made today, the adapter would need to dispense with the railway and steel industry angles and find plausible substitutes in the high-tech field. Not only are trains the bete noir of many conservatives today, but they no longer represent what they once did and cannot serve as a lynchpin of American industry and financial might. Rand purists might object, but the work doesn’t translate properly to today, or its near-future setting, due to the changed landscape in the decades since the novel was written.” Really? On what planet does this reviewer currently reside?

Each of these critics’ paragraphs seem as if they’ve been cribbed straight out of the Journolist playbook. For example, a common characteristic of both passages is the use of the term “train.” The term does not really pertain to what they’re attempting to describe. Instead, its use exposes the essential ignorance of both writers who simply fail to recognize the continued vitality of a key element of the American infrastructure.

The Taggart operation, not to mention our own current rail behemoths like CSX and Norfolk Southern, are railroads, not trains, the latter of which transport commuters primarily along the densely populated eastern corridor. This kind of terminological gaffe is reminiscent of President Obama’s incorrect use of naval and military terminology in this fall’s final presidential debate. By ignoring the vitality of today’s major railroads, both writers prove they don’t know what their talking about.

The Voice piece also neglects to mention the billions of U.S. taxpayer that have been wasted on “near-magic energy sources” like solar power and windmills, both of which have made a big dent in taxpayer’s wallets while barely scratching the surface of America’s energy requirements. Rand’s “mysterious” energy source is actually more effective and practical than today’s costly “green energy solutions”: it hasn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. Further, it’s merely a metaphor for future industrial creativity.

Inside Hank Rearden’s hi-tech steel mill. How many critics have ever been inside one? (Still taken from ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part II.)

The Voice also pokes fun at Rand’s Ripley-like heroine, Dagny Taggart, who runs the nation’s biggest railroad in both the book and the film. Well, actually, she doesn’t exactly run it. That’s the job of her brother James, the handsome, hapless talking head who serves as CEO but knows little about the company he allegedly runs. Trapped in the secondary role of COO, Dagny actually is the brains behind the outfit, something the Voice failed to notice:

“… hilariously, [on Taggart’s] first night off [after resigning from the company], a train breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and without her guidance, nobody at the entire company has any idea how to fix it. Why would the COO handle routine engine failure?”

A passage like this is fair proof that this critic didn’t watch the entire film. Or worse, perhaps the Voice doesn’t understand that COO stands for Chief Operating Officer—i.e., the person who actually runs the company day-to-day and so must understand every aspect of its operations by definition. Under James Taggart, the railroad has declined so precipitously that only his sister—the real railroad expert—has the critical systems knowledge to run the system.

Not satisfied with merely missing the point, the Voice goes on to trash Part II’s special effects:

“The [movie’s] computer effects are plasticky, clearly superimposed, lacking either photo-realism or matte-painting grandeur… Here it looks like it’s the heads of the special effects field who abandoned the world, and the filmmakers had to settle for whatever they could get whipped up at the genius bar.”

In terms of “Star Wars,” and its offspring, the current “Atlas” film’s special effects are similar to the best the industry could create in, say, the mid-to-late 1970s. Starved of the kind of budget it takes to mount a big Hollywood blockbuster today, this film’s special effects are competent but hardly state of the art. Denouncing an ambitious film effectively for having a low special effects budget is absurd. You make do with what you have. The author of these remarks is the one who might need a little extra time at the genius bar.

Samantha Mathis stars as Dagny Taggart. (PR photo.)

Nothing, including logic, will steer the naysayers from their pre-formatted opinions, something we can readily see as the Hollywood Reporter’s own hit piece rounds third and heads home:

“…this middle portion of an intended trilogy will only play to the converted who have already seen Part I, and then only to the most gullible among them who will swallow mediocre filmmaking for the sake of ideology…. Box office, which for the first one started auspiciously and then wilted, looks even less promising, as no one who skipped Part I will come near this one.”

First, the writer states that Part II “will only play to the converted” and even then, to only “the must gullible” of them. In other words, if you saw Part I and plan to attend or have already attended Part II, you are incredibly “gullible” which here can easily be translated into “stupid.” The constant reliance on name-calling by the left as a replacement for logic is getting a bit clichéd at this point. Who even believes these people any more?

But then this writer does a 180, grandly declaring that “no one who skipped Part I will come near this one.” Really? It’s possible that many filmgoers never heard of Part I, given the general critical silence the film received. In any event, why does it follow that anyone who didn’t see Part I not “come near” Part II? It’s hard to believe that anyone actually gets paid to write this kind of stuff

It’s increasingly clear that many of the negative critical articles purporting to review “Atlas Shrugged: Part II,” have either been pre-written by critics who never wanted the film to hit the silver screen to begin with, or simply cribbed out of the Journalist/Media Matters playbook.

Critics to the right of me…

With responses ranging from the Dome of Silence to ridicule and denunciation, “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” has not exactly been a box office bonanza for its producers. The film, according to estimates, has yet to rake in $4 million, quite short of its rumored $20 million budget. However, the film doesn’t entirely lack critical support.

According to Investors Business Daily, the new film is “a chilling look at what America will become if Barack Obama is elected to a second term. That’s the reason it’s getting maligned by critics.

“In the movie, America has fallen into the hands of politicians who demonize the producers of wealth, rail against the injustices of capitalism, and demagogue the crowds with demands for their ‘fair share.’” Sounding familiar?

IBD doubles down, observing that in the not-so-brave-new-world depicted in the film, “Business decisions must be made for the common good. It’s Obama’s ‘You didn’t build that.’”

IBD notes the clever, contemporary updates to this chapter of the filmed version of Rand’s 1950s novel, first observing that “Rand depicts an America of ragged crowds filling public squares, looking like Occupy Wall Streeters. Gasoline tops $40 a gallon.”

Forbes Magazine’s John Tamny is even more pointed in its support for the film and in its disdain for the current Administration. He notes that Hank Rearden “asks the essential, and always timely question, ‘How could such small people do so much damage?’” That key query describes with near perfection the situation in today’s Washington.

Tamny concludes that “the film is a must see because it in a very handsome way describes the world in which we live today whereby the achievers are being shackled by the moochers.” Which it does in the main.

So what’s our opinion?

The definitive “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” review…

We had a chance to see “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” about a week ago in northern Virginia. Our opinion of the film, not surprisingly, differs from those offered in the hit pieces already cited.

For us, Part II is a significant improvement over Part I. This refreshing second stanza picks up the pace, creating more visual and emotional excitement in the process. Better still, its new cast seems to bring a greater depth and understanding that helps fill out Rand’s unusual characters.

Special effects, we’ll agree, are more on a par with TV special effects rather than the kind of razzle-dazzle we’re accustomed to getting from Industrial Light and Magic. That said, we again raise the point: it’s the best the filmmakers could have done, given their special effects budget or relative lack thereof.

Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis) crash lands her 1% private jet at the end of the film. Does she know she’s landed in Galt’s Gulch? Find out in ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part 3.’ Assuming it ever gets made. (Still from ‘Part 2’)

The real problem, though, in evaluating Parts I and II as filmed entertainment is this: Rand’s original behemoth novel is a creature unique in the annals of modern literature. It’s an odd amalgam of the old Romantic thriller that’s infused and enlarged by Rand’s huge, built-in treatise on Objectivism.

In other words, it’s a melodrama that’s stuffed with complex philosophy, the kind that today’s iPhone generation is unaccustomed to encountering in any venue. Story and philosophy are interwoven so tightly in the novel that you can’t pry one away from the other. It’s this, in turn, that makes filming such a book so difficult.

But here’s the key. Rand’s original novel is really a gigantic “morality play” in a contemporary format. We refer here to an ancient, religious dramatic form that arose in the early Catholic Church. Morality plays employed drama and storytelling to illustrate simple and complex theological lessons to the laity. According to Britannica online, morality plays “were an intermediate step in the transition from liturgical to professional secular drama, and combine elements of each.”

In a morality play, the action focuses “on a hero, such as Mankind, whose inherent weaknesses are assaulted by such personified diabolic forces as the Seven Deadly Sins but who may choose redemption and enlist the aid of such figures as the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Justice, Temperance, and Truth).”

When considering what Atlas Shrugged really is, it might be useful to consider its similarity to the task and format of the morality play. In morality plays, the intent was not to create realistic situations. Rather, such plays cast their actors not as real people but as reliable character “types” who confronted moral dilemmas, which forced them to make personal and moral life choices.

Atlas Shrugged is a contemporary morality play, even though it was penned by a woman who was also a fearless atheist. Rand’s own moral system—Objectivism—is the theology she’s trying to teach in her magnum opus. It’s this, to a great extent that makes her characters seem two-dimensional, even though she takes great pains to enliven them with great wisdom, creativity, and passion. In the end, they are types or symbols of the independent, freethinking minds we’re being urged to emulate.

When translating such a novel to film, this is the dilemma that the writing team, the director (John Putch), and the cast are ultimately forced to face. Rand’s characters are not so much people as they are character types, exemplars of various facets of her moral system.

Characters like Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart are types of the heroic industrialist. Wesley Mouch is a type of the greedy, unthinking bureaucrat. And James Taggart is the type for the weak-kneed takers Rand detested, incapable of originality, competence, or greatness, but always willing to take credit for the same. Atlas Shrugged is thus a modern morality play that casts these and other characters in novel form, meant to illustrate Objectivism in an entertaining, meaningful, and exciting way.

Jason Beghe is metal man Henry Rearden in ‘Atlas Shrugged: Part 2’.

That Rand actually succeeds in putting this all together in a book that’s been a best seller for over fifty years is a tribute to her considerable skills as a writer and popular philosopher. Yet these same skills make it tough to translate her masterwork into compelling cinema—a reductionist art form—in spite of the fact that she herself once worked as a Hollywood screenwriter and employed many consciously cinematic techniques in her novel.

With regard to the current film, we must conclude that the filmmakers have grown considerably in the time between the release of Part I and the filming of Part II. They’ve created a better, more exciting film, picking up the pace and adding reasonably competent special effects that give the film a more compelling, kinetic feel.

Using slightly older actors in Part II also helped add a touch of verisimilitude that seemed lacking in Part I. The foxy Taylor Schilling did a fine job as Part I’s Dagny, but she seemed too young for the part. Her replacement, Samantha Mathis is a just-right 40-something, attractive but reflecting the burden of experience. This in turn gives greater authority to her character—who certainly needs it in Part II as her world begins to fall apart.

Some critics have belittled Jason Beghe’s rough, tough new Hank Rearden. But Beghe’s take on the character is a good bit closer to the Rearden this critic always envisioned. Beghe is riveting during his key speech—taken directly from the novel—in which he publicly refuses to recognize the unconstitutional powers of the so-called Unification Board that’s bent on nationalizing his company.

This speech—done without a teleprompter—is a classic example of how the morality play element of Rand’s novel can structural intrude into her epic story. Beghe finesses the issue in his approach by making Rearden’s speech not a spot in time but an essential part of the action, and it’s one of the motivational high points of the film—the other being Francisco d’Anconia’s classic speech on the power of money, brilliantly delivered by Esai Morales who is perfectly cast in this role.

Henry Rearden (Jason Beghe) lets those bureaucrats have it. And without a telemprompter! (Still from ‘Part 2’)

Also notable in Part II are the surprisingly humorous touches applied by the director, screenwriters, and actors themselves. Rand’s novel is, on the whole, quite serious. However, as Shakespeare was well aware, it’s a good idea to get off the soapbox once in awhile and take aim at the absurdity of it all. The filmmakers follow suit in this iteration.

The movie’s take on clueless demonstrators is continually amusing. Butt one of this film’s funniest moments occurs near the end of Part II when Dagny Taggart, nearly out of gas at a lonely country outpost, stops her car to fuel up. She glances upward at the posted price for regular: over $40 a gallon. Her blank, slightly quizzical look was priceless, reminding this writer of the equally funny telephone booth sight gag in the original Christopher Reeve “Superman.” Samantha Mathis captures much the same mood here. Last week’s theater audience laughed heartily at the gag, given that these days, the potential for a $6,000+ fill-up doesn’t seem that remote any more.

By revamping the cast, picking up the pace, more tightly integrating philosophy and plot, and adding life-giving occasional touches of humor to their second stanza, the makers of “Atlas Shrugged: Part II” have demonstrated a greater mastery of the world according to Ayn Rand. Additionally, they seem close to grasping the essential morality play behind their story and have adjusted their production values accordingly.

Forbes is clearly optimistic about the results. “Go see this film,” Tamny urges, “and then get ready for the grand fun in Part III when the winners have completely disappeared, having left their achievements to the unskilled hands of society’s takers.”

We wish we could share Tamny’s optimism, but our biggest question is this: Given the film’s paltry box office receipts thus far—whatever the reason—will there indeed be a Part III?

In the final analysis, given the novel’s morality play scaffolding, built-in heavy-duty philosophy, and stately though inexorable plot, this critic—who has actually enjoyed the first two films—must reluctantly conclude that this epic would have fared far better as a half-season long TV miniseries. Broken into bite-sized pieces, such a mini-series could have given the filmmakers more time to embed Rand’s counter-trend thinking while developing characters of greater depth over several episodes. In addition, TV’s smaller screens might serve to lessen the obviousness of those less expensive special effects, which seem at least good enough on the tube. If anybody would actually air such a series.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars.)

“Atlas Shrugged: Part II” trailer:

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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