'Atlas Shrugged' Bores the Audience Into Submission

Text messages sent by me while watching Atlas Shrugged Part I. (Things in quotes are actual dialogue from the movie. Really.)

I am watching Atlas Shrugged.

It is ... not good.

It is like watching a Bizarro world movie.

"What happened to you, Francisco? Where is the man that I used to love?"

Sooooo bored.

Please show me more shots of railroad tracks! Please!

"Why all these stupid altruistic urges? What is it with people today?"

"The secret you're trying to solve is greater—and I mean much greater—than an engine that runs on atmospheric electricity."

Why does anyone take Ayn Rand seriously? She was a mean-spirited crackpot who served as something close to a cult leader for her followers, and what little of her prose I've managed to force myself through is ludicrous potboiler stuff mixed with a juvenile worldview as shallow as it is endlessly verbose. She was a lousy writer and a lousy thinker. Even her fellow right-wing ideologues shunned her—Whittaker Chambers, writing for National Review, famously called Atlas Shrugged "remarkably silly" on its release in 1957. (He went on to accuse Rand of fascist tendencies: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!'")

But she sold, and still sells, a lot of books. That in itself is not hard to understand. Few writers have ever been more flattering of their readers. To embrace her Objectivist philosophy is to accept, with a weary sigh, that you are one of the Great People of the World, surrounded by lesser beings whose petty demands for your time, money, or affection can do nothing but interfere with your achievement of grand and lofty goals. And in Rand-world, those goals mostly amount to having as much wealth and power as possible—not so you can do anything in particular with it, just so you can have it. Charity, philanthropy, or in fact caring at all about other people, are all signs of sniveling weakness. Not for nothing did she title one book The Virtue of Selfishness.

Her way of thinking will sound familiar to anyone who was ever a teenager, or who happens to have one around the house. It boils down to a monotonous, non-stop shriek of "You're not the boss of me!" The good thing about teenagers is that most of them grow out of it. The ones who don't, I guess, become Ayn Rand fans. (That includes Congressman Paul Ryan, the weasely Wisconsinite being touted as the new brains of the GOP. He has credited Rand with inspiring his political career, and he reportedly makes all of his staff members read Atlas Shrugged. His recent budget proposal, in Randian fashion, would give heaps of money to the wealthiest Americans and trash the Medicare program. How he squares all this Great Man evangelizing with accepting a paycheck from taxpayers, I have no idea.)

Anyway. I've written half this movie review without saying much about the movie. That's because, as dumb as Rand's ideas are, this laughable, low-budget snoozefest makes them seem even dumber. The movie was a rush job—producer Harmon Kaslow's rights to the novel were going to expire if he didn't start making it by last summer—and it feels like it. With just $10 million to spend (most of it, apparently, on industrial footage of freight trains chugging through generic Western vistas), Kaslow and director Paul Johansson (there's a reason you haven't heard of him) cobbled together a film that consists mostly of a handful of blandly attractive people sitting around well-appointed offices and upscale restaurants, arguing about the physical properties of different kinds of metal.

There is a sort-of thriller aspect to the plot. Assorted industrialists and high-paid executives keep disappearing, leaving behind only the question, "Who is John Galt?" Meanwhile, evil forces in Washington are conspiring to do various bad things—which, for Rand, means trying to help "the less privileged" (a phrase that in this film is spoken with the kind of distaste reserved in other films for, say, "the child molesters"). As anyone who's read or even heard of the book probably knows, the Galtians are actually quitting society, taking their Greatness and going to some far-away place where the government will leave them alone and they won't have to trouble themselves with the weak and the needy (or, in the case of one character, the wife who expects sex to last more than five minutes). The timing of the film makes this notion even more hilarious than it no doubt was in the Eisenhower era—yes, what would we poor plebes do if our titans of Wall Street and Walmart packed up their credit default swaps and cheap Chinese trinkets and moved to Machu Picchu? How would we ever cope?

Really, by rendering Rand's ideas so nakedly and ineptly, the filmmakers have done everyone a favor. Stripped of her floridity and melodrama, the notions underlying Atlas Shrugged are left to wriggle around like beached minnows, tiny and helpless and gasping for air. For someone so enamored of Big Thinking, Rand was a fundamentally small-minded person, driven by resentment and vanity. This hack job of a movie would not have pleased her, but it is hard to argue that she deserves anything better.