The "s" word is never used in "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1," the first film of a planned trilogy of Ayn Rand's magnum opus.
But it’s there in spirit, whispered off camera by the heroes of Rand’s exceptional-people-intent-on-doing-exceptional-things tale – saving the economy, fighting “the government” and succeeding in spite of a vast “pay your taxes” conspiracy aligned against them.
After years of teasing, tempting notions of how this book might be filmed, it arrives in theaters a lumbering, stale and retro feast for Rand’s converts – a clumsy amble through a Middle Earth of Monopolists for the rest of us.
The script takes us to a future – 2016 – when the economy is in shambles, poverty is on the rise, newspapers are relevant again and steel and the railroads built from it are the only thing that can save us.
The problem, laid out by Dagny Taggart (pretty but bland Taylor Schilling) and her compatriot in inequality, Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler, less bland), is the collusion of competing businesses and The State to prevent the Darwinian winner-take-all champions from succeeding.
Taggart is anti-egalitarian to her very marrow, CEO of a railroad firm that her worthless brother has run into the ground but which she can save by rebuilding the lines with Rearden Metal.
As Taggart stands up to snakes in the State House (Michael Lerner, playing a caricature; Jon Polito, playing another one), and unions and those who would stand in her way, she makes eyes at Rearden – a married man. Though married to a bloodsucking shrew, he feels guilty about it.
Quaint. That’s the best word for these days of future past, a movie targeted at an audience who remembers when Rand was cool, rail was king and if you wanted to move oil around, only trains did it.
Taggart has issues. “I guess I’ve never felt anything at all.” She’s all about raw materials and profits, and she preaches her gospel of untrammeled capitalism to one and all. “Why these stupid altruistic urges,” she wants to know as she considers the reasons the country’s gone to hell. Like everybody else, she wants to know, “Who is John Galt?”
The “Galt” mystery is a man (actor-director Paul Johansson) who convinces the fattest of the fat cats to join his cause. This is where Rand goes after Frank Capra’s John Doe. The Everyman Little Man must have stuck in her craw something fierce.
It’s not a bad-looking movie, with Deco design touches that remind me of the earlier Rand film adaptation, “The Fountainhead.” But the acting’s flat and the script is absurdly cluttered with characters whose purpose might become clear if they ever are allowed to make the other two films they have planned.
Whatever points Rand made about the exceptional being held back by social conventions dictated by the mediocre and socialism in its various forms are not exactly lost, but just so hammily played as to provoke giggles. Here was someone who believed in making her own success and keeping the profits of that success, thus her enduring appeal to conservatives and tax protesters.
It is, of course, tea party agitprop. The film’s been endorsed by many in those circles, sight unseen. But even they must recognize it’s a generally artless affair, a stale soap opera of a movie made by an actor turned director out of his depth.
Still, as a primer on the cult of Rand and its members, “Atlas Shrugged” occasionally approaches engrossing. She spent her career inveighing against the evils of the system that chased her and her family out of Russia. Her fans seem to be still fighting that war, resisting tyranny by a government with too much power, blaming that tyranny for the way their lives have turned out.
ATLAS SHRUGGED: Part 1
* 1/2 ***
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Paul Johansson, Jon Polito, Michael Lerner
Director: Paul Johansson
Running time: 1:33
Rated: PG-13; sexuality