Forget about Rand and her philosophy for the moment. The only thing that matters is, does this work as a film? Especially, as a standalone film, because very few people saw Part I, and those who did are now presented with the same characters played by different actors.
In other words, is this more Empire Strikes Back than Rooster Cogburn? And the answer is, Who is John Galt?
It’s sometime in the near future, or perhaps just yesterday. The United States is a nation divided, especially by class. The economy is paralyzed, with double-digit unemployment and gas at $42 a gallon. The fact that a once highly successful petroleum entrepreneur, Ellis Wyatt, set fire to his oil fields upon refusing to comply with government directives that were choking him, and then disappeared from sight, has only made things worse. In fact, there are only a handful of still-functioning and truly productive manufacturers, and a whole lotta 99 percenters protesting their little hearts out.
Among the industrious 1 percent are Dagny Taggart and her Taggart Transcontinental Railway. Taggart, played this time around by Samantha Mathis, is struggling to keep her family business running efficiently in the face of an incompetent kiss-ass of a brother and ever-increasing government regulations. Also working to keep America working is Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe), inventor of Rearden Steel, which is lighter and cheaper to manufacture than other forms of steel. In fact, as more and more of the manufacturing base in the country comes to a grinding halt, the government has to come to Rearden and demand that he sell them his steel in order to prime the economic pump with building projects.
He refuses, but allows that they can come and haul off as much as they want at the point of a gun, in order to highlight for the world what he thinks of the government’s intrusions into the economy and the business life of the creators in this world, as opposed to the takers. The government is just legalized theft.
To make matters worse, the would-be savior of the nation, the so-called Head of State (Ray Wise), invokes Directive 10-289, the ultimate government power grab. It freezes everyone and everything in place: wages, positions, even business transactions. No one is allowed to quit their job. No one is allowed to sell any product for more than they did a year ago. No one is allowed to make any more or any less money. All patents and copyrights are transferred to the government for use “for the public good.” It’s an economy in amber, equality enforced at the point of a pen.
As things go from bad to worse, people begin vanishing. Not just any people. The Elect. First there was the aforementioned Wyatt. Then a brilliant concert pianist. Then a partner of Rearden’s, Ken Dannager, a coal king. Then the charismatic copper-mine magnate Francisco D’Anconia (played with enormous zest by Esai Morales) but not before his mines are literally blown and rendered useless. Finally, a young scientist who has turned from the dark side, government work, to Dagny’s employ, Quentin Daniels (Dietrich Bader). His task was to see if he could do something with a buried treasure Dagny has unearthed: a gizmo that can theoretically produce limitless energy. Just as a breakthrough is imminent, Daniels, too, says goodbye, and disappears literally into the sky.
And then it dawned on me. This film. What it is. What the book is. It’s the libertarian Left Behind. Get this: select people are simply disappearing, into the ether, as it were. And the rest of the world is left staggering under the burden of their absence. All that they contributed, including their business concerns, vanish with them, deliberately destroyed.
“Who is John Galt?” is not a tired expression of helplessness or despair — it’s a prayer. And John Galt…is Jesus/God. He’s the Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause of industrial growth, the man who vowed to “stop the engine of the world.” And with the sound of a trump, actually a crash, he emerges from the heavens and pulls a weary Dagny from the wreckage of her life—a wreckage that is the direct result of the Head of State, the Antichrist—and beckons her to a new earth, one where the minions of the son of perdition have no say.
“Who do people say that I am?” “Who is John Galt?”
“We won’t let the world disappear,” Rearden promises Dagny at one point. Of course not. That’s faith talking. There’s the thousand-year reign coming. And Galt is whisking away his Elect, taking them to a place where they will rule with him in a new dispensation.
Rand has created not merely her own hero, her own anti-collectivist philosophy, but her own salvation myth.
So—to get back to where I began? Is Atlas Shrugged II the movie worth your $11? I can’t answer that question. As a film, it’s a screed. Just like the book. Two-dimensional characters who embody Randian principles or anti-principles. Anyone who works for the government is a conniving parasite. Anyone who works for himself, or herself, enjoys true red-blooded humanity. Samantha Mathis gets high marks for doing quite a lot with her role. She makes for an attractive and compelling businesswoman in a world of wimpy crowd pleasers. Beghe is an effective amalgam of working-class gruffness and white-collar audacity. Dagny and Rearden’s relationship, illicit given that Rearden is still a married man, adds a “human” element to this filmed clash of orthodoxies.
The script is uneven in its pacing, certainly, but not terrible. It skirts real cheese only to be saved by earnest and thoroughly professional performances. But it will disappoint the non-Randian, given that this is Part II of III. And so the story does not resolve itself. But Rand fans know where it’s headed, and the clever can see where it too.
If you need someone to give Atlas Shrugged Part I or Part II a thumbs up before you venture out to see it —stay home. Either you find the ideas that inform this narrative compelling, and so will suffer through the Mystery Science Theater 3000 special effects, not to mention B-movie over-the-top and time-compressed plot developments — or you will role your eyes and spend the last hour or so of the film texting friends.
I know Rand has her many enemies, certainly on the Left, her main target, the collectivists and welfare statists and advocates of quotas and the manipulators of tax codes in the interest of “fairness.” But she is also not loved on the Christian Right. “Selfishness,” her brand or any other, is a sin pure and simple.
But nothing is ever that simple. Let’s be frank: in our more paranoid moments we fear not only the barbarian hordes waiting to suck the productive dry by means of greater and greater claims of “entitlement”; we also gear the high performers, the true mavericks. Sure, we love the “Rocky” story. The underdog. The guy or gal who came out of nowhere and made it to the top. Just so long as they don’t make us feel bad about our own failed dreams. Then don’t we love to knock them back to where they came from.
We fear our perceived inferiors and superiors. We feared the Japanese in the 1980s, who were going to buy America and make us all their bitches. Right up to the point when their economy collapsed. (Is Japan still even there?) Now it’s the Chinese. Eventually it will be the Indians — and perhaps even Arabs who make good in the First World but perhaps cling too tenaciously to Third World customs. What we forget is that in becoming great successes, they are also, willingly or not, consciously or not, also becoming more and more Western. Even American.
I have read almost all of Rand. I started in my late teens. And the appeal to me was this: Rand was fixated on, obsessed by, the unfettered imagination. Turned liquid. Molten. Running through the streets, carving out new channels, new pathways, letting no one and no thing stop it. It was energy. It was heat. It was life.
Which is why Atlas Shrugged is rife with railways and natural resources and raw materials. It’s a bombastic prose poem to the original Industrial Age, when great men built a nation out of what they could pull from the earth and refine and refashion. It’s primal. It’s passionate. It’s as real as the car you drive or the building you live in.
Which is also why her philosophy was called Objectivism. There is no room for feelings, or sentimentality, or abstractions, or mysticism. If you can’t build with it, it’s junk.
Which is why Rand would have had little respect for the 1980s Wall Street junk bond salesmen or other paper pushers. They created nothing. They left nothing behind. There was no value to their labor. But she may have egged on the electric-car manufacturers — so long as they did not succumb to government blandishments.
I find that inspiring. You don’t have to buy into her whole worldview. It’s thoroughly materialist. And the great irony of her Objectivism is that, as I noted above, it’s Utopian. But in the interest of being wise as serpents but innocent as doves, take what works and spit out the rest. At the very least, try and understand its hold on a minority of folk who turned out to see this film opening week.
And Atlas Shrugged is something of a miracle worker. It made Teller, of Penn and Teller, speak.