Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - ‘Something less than art’

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Directed by Paul Johansson
Written by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler and Paul Johansson

Review by Santiago Ramos

AtlasShrugged I felt peculiarly cared-for while watching this movie, because the people who made it cared about more than my money, and more than my being entertained. They cared that I consider and adopt the ideas that they were trying to propagate with the film. The movie attempts to evangelize on behalf of a certain ideology, and it does not apologize for doing so. I am not saying that that’s a good thing, but it’s something different than what I am used to in mainstream Hollywood cinema. This is a movie which points beyond itself.

Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, spans more than 1,000 pages, and this film is labeled “Part I,” covering only about a third (so I’ve been told) of the novel’s progress. Thus its plot is not complete, but its most fundamental creed is fully stated. First of all, civilization is nurtured, driven, and made possible by the workings of a creative, intelligent elite which naturally floats to the top of industry, science, finance, and the arts, provided that no encumbrances prevent their rise. Second, those of us who are not part of the elite should not allow any of those encumbrances to prevent their rise. Third, usually the government is one of those encumbrances, probably the greatest encumbrance. Fourth, those of us who are not among the creative elite should be smart enough to help rather than hinder the elite who, after all, are responsible for the quality of our lives. Ayn Rand’s ideas are probably more complicated than that. However, bluntly put, this is what we see in the movie.

The principal heroine is Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), who runs her late father’s business, Taggart Transcontinental Railway, along with her CEO brother, James (Matthew Marsden). The setting is a dystopian future about five years from now, when gas costs $40 a gallon, the country is in a state of economic depression, and “Washington” is constantly attempting to redistribute and re-regulate wealth in more and more fiendish ways. The antipathy of the times is captured by the casual nonsense phrase, “Who is John Galt?” which people use in response to real questions, like, say, “What can we do to help the world?” or “Who can we place our hope in?” I don’t know, whatever, who is John Galt?

The only way for the USA to rise again is for the creative elite to raise it up again. Logically, because gas is so expensive, the railways have become a lucrative industry. Another lucrative industry is that of metal alloys which make the tracks for the trains. Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) is a member of the creative elite, who has devised an alloy called “Rearden Metal” which is to steel what steel is to iron. In attempting to overcome some setbacks to her own company, Dagny seeks out this new metal for a new railway which she aims to build, which would run through Colorado, to show the world what Taggart Railways is capable of.

The movie becomes a story of two journeys: Dagny’s struggles against her complacent, and not ambitious, brother; Rearden’s struggles against government bureaucracies which want to fleece his business and reduce its domination of the steel industry. Rearden and Dagny team up with another railroad tycoon, Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), in order to build a railway through Colorado, using Rearden Metal, which will be faster than any train known to man. Dagny decides to name the railway after John Galt, because she is tired of hearing that phrase used ironically by “great men” who have “given up.” She is not giving up, and neither are Rearden or Wyatt, because all three know that the world, pitiful and parasitic as it is, needs them.

They succeed, but that is only part of the story. The greater part of the story deals with a real John Galt, who we are slowly given to understand, is a real person who is collecting creative elites into a sort of hidden secret society. To what end? We don’t know. But we can sort of guess that it has something to do about protecting and reinvigorating the elite.

We can sort of guess because the movie makes its beliefs known from the first minute to the last. There is no conjecturing, no development, no ambiguity, no real drama beyond the very basic, “Will they be able to construct that railroad? Yes!” This movie is an illustration of an ideology, and even though that makes it slightly more interesting than a movie which is merely trying to take my money, it is still at the end of the day, not quite propaganda, but something less than art, something less reasonable than a story which treats me as an equal and not as someone who needs tutoring.

An ideology-picture like this fails to make a good story precisely because a story is greater than any idea that drives it. In a story, the creator submits himself to the freedom and possibility of his characters within the world he has created for them. What he wants to do is explore and learn through them. The more this is true of a movie or novel or story, the more interesting it is. Atlas Shrugged: Part I, on the other hand, is interesting for an altogether different reason. It beats the trend in some ways, but it is still a cliché.

Santiago Ramos is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College.