Monday, April 18, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Film Review

Since I went to the opening night showing of Atlas Shrugged some people have asked me what I thought. I posted some preliminary responses on my personal Facebook page to satisfy some of the more urgent demands, but felt a more in-depth discussion was warranted as well. And I know already that I will differ with some of the hardcore fans and some of the hardcore critics.

I should warn those who are utterly clueless as to the plot of the film that I am presupposing that readers will know the plot and thus there will be comments that will give away parts of it. If you don’t want come across any spoilers then don’t read the review.

First, allow me to discuss criticism of the film. I have read several reviews and have often wondered if there are two versions of the film floating around: one version is apparently for the critics only and the other one for the fans.  The review that struck me as being most out of kilter with the facts was the one Roger Ebert published. I read his review a few times and came away with the distinct feeling that the purpose of his review was to persuade fans of the novel to avoid the film; that he wants the film to do badly. That he makes it clear he dislikes Ayn Rand is, perhaps, the reason.

He warns fans that the film is a “series of business” meetings in settings “borrowed from a hotel no doubt known as Robber Baron Arms.” I guess he couldn’t avoid having his own biases seep in—actually they didn’t seep as much as gush.

He made claims I simply don’t comprehend. For instance, he said that dialogue was done so badly he couldn’t understand what people said. Perhaps it is time to turn up his hearing aid because I had no such problems when I saw the film. He claimed that all the characters did was sit around drinking. So we have an unending serious of business meetings and the characters are always sitting around drinking, which is something that doesn’t usually happen at a business meeting. Ebert seems to believe that anytime the characters are talking to one another it is a business meeting only the film is about business leaders.  I fear he exaggerates the facts by several magnitudes.

One of the more odd comments he made is one that is most easily fact checked. He wrote: “There is also a love scene, which is shown not merely from the waist up but from the ear’s up. The man keeps his shirt on.” While fixing his hearing aid, he should get his eyes checked as well. I do know what a bare back looks like and I can tell the difference between it and a shirt. That Mr. Ebert apparently can’t, doesn’t speak well of his own sex life. This was attached to some remark about libertarians liking sex scenes just like other people and how they will be disappointed by the film. Again he is making it clear that Rand fans should avoid the film.

At the showing I attended there was a sold-out crowd, and many of us stayed outside talking when it was over. One angry young man saw the film title and started screaming repeatedly at the throngs of people: “Ayn Rand is a nasty fascist.” The man in question, because of his screaming, came across more like a crazed street dweller than anything else. Ebert’s review wasn’t quite that bad but I did feel he was only one level above pushing a shopping cart full of rags and trash down the street while shouting rudely to the winds.

As for the film itself, I should note that for me this was an event, not just a film. It was an event because it was excuse to go to Los Angeles and spend the evening with Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, along with numerous other friends, old and new. Given that Nathaniel and Barbara were with Ayn when the novel itself was being written, and then published in 1957, added to the specialness of the evening. I had both of them sign a movie poster of the film for me and intend to frame it as a remembrance of a lovely evening.

I have long been a fan of the novel, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t things I would have said differently, or areas of disagreement. Anyone who thinks for himself would have those differences. Books are written on the author’s terms and readers are free to enter the author’s world or not. Rand’s novel fascinated me, and it is a far better book than her critics give her credit for. It is written on more than just the surface level, which is all that most critics see. They miss most of the richness in the book. Bluntly put, it is not the typical novel and is written at an intellectual level that many, perhaps most, critics simply don’t comprehend. Their lack of understanding is thus attributed to the author’s writing style by them. In addition Rand takes some stands on issues of ethics and politics that these people explicitly oppose.

This leads to the Atlas phenomenon: people don’t judge the novel, or even the film, primarily on the basis of its artistic qualities. They are more concerned about whether or not it resonates with their own political and ethical values. I have had people absolutely vilify Rand and the novel and yet, just a few questions later, admit that they never read her. They will insist that the novel says the vilest things. In one recent encounter an angry young man made exactly that kind of attack on the book, and thus the film as well. He admitted he did not read the book, insisted his view was accurate because he got second-hand accounts from unspecified sources, and then challenged me to prove that his interpretation wasn’t true. Apparently the concept of “burden of proof” escaped him.

He was interpreting a book, through his own unique filter. Elsewhere he described himself as a Marxist so that, I presume, was the filter he used. Roger Ebert was doing something similar. Ebert is rather left wing and he felt obliged to put ideological loyalty first. Of course, some fans will do the same thing.  I will try to avoid that trap.

I did not love the film, but I rarely love films, I enjoy them or dislike them. I enjoyed this film. I would see it again, and hope to do so. It did not bore me and that is important. It was fast paced and when it was over I was wondering why it was over so quickly. The previews that night in the theater seemed to last much longer.

It was a good film, not a great one. It fell short of what it could have been but the budget was relatively meager for a film of this magnitude. Some critics attacked the film for the special effects. Actually I found all the special effects to be perfectly acceptable. I saw no apparent flaws. 

Others attacked the acting. In this case there is some truth to the matter, but not as much as they would like.

Taylor Schilling, as Dagny Taggart, was fine for the role. I had no problems with her. Grant Bowler, as Hank Rearden, played the part quite well. I suspect some criticism is because they did not play the roles emotionally. But neither of these characters wore their emotions on their sleeves in the novel. James Taggart (Matthew Marsden) insults Dagny at one point by saying that she never feels anything. She sarcastically agrees with him. But the emotion is there, it is in her eyes, but you have to pay attention. It is not the scream, weep, and dance with joy, kind of surface emotion that some actors, and people, engage in. It is something far deeper. And you can see that in these characters, if you pay attention. This is not a film you can indulge in passively, you have to use your mind and notice the details fitting of a Rand story. I suspect the critics are so used to the mindless puff of many films that these details escape them.

Jsu Garcia looks the role of Francisco but his appearance in part one of the film is so limited that I actually have no comments regarding his characterization. I will have to wait for part two, hoping there is a part two. Matthew Marsden, as James Taggart, was a bit of a disappointment. I felt he played Taggart too strong. James Taggart was a man who evaded responsibility and actually feared it. This version of Taggart was less like that and seemed more caught up in a case of sibling rivalry with his sister.

Director Paul Johansson played the role of John Galt and he was atrocious. He didn’t work in the role. In addition the script changed some of timing of the novel and ruins the main mystery. 

Rand called her novel a mystery “not about the murder of man’s body, but about the murder—and rebirth—of man’s spirit.” While Galt is the central character in the novel he does not explicitly appear until well into the plot.

In the novel the world is falling apart due to over-regulation and political manipulation of the producers of the world. One by one some of the most able producers vanish. Why? Dagny and Hank think there is a “destroyer” who somehow causes these men to vanish. In reality the destroyer is Galt who explains how those who produce are attacked repeatedly by the very people who need them. He convinces the men to go on strike, to withhold their labor, not in order to destroy society but to clear out the political dead wood so that the world can be rebuilt.

In the book this isn’t clear until Dagny finally meets Galt and discovers the truth. But the film version exposes the truth to the audience at the end of the film. We do see Galt, in shadows, approaching the men who join the strike, and then they disappear. But, with oilman Ellis Wyatt we hear some of the spiel that Galt uses. And it was pathetic. It sounded like the sort of pleadings you would hear from a sect member asking Wyatt to join him in Atlantis. This entire segment was best left in the minds of the viewer and not concretized by having it unconvincingly stated by Galt. I actually consider that the worst problem in the film. Not only did it take away the mystery that Ayn had written into the plot but it showed Galt as entirely unconvincing in the process.

Updated 4/25: Actually I believe Marsden would have been better cast as Galt and the actor playing Galt, who is also the film director, should have been on a beach somewhere, instead of making a movie.

I thought Ellis Wyatt, played by Graham Beckel, was done well. I did find the gruff exterior consistent with the kind of oilman needed to do the job. On the other hand Michael O’Keefe’s role as Huge Akston was a great disappointment.  Edi Gathegi, as Eddie Willers, was mostly adequate for the job, but periodically seemed too wooden for me.

The film certainly depicted the evil of Hank Rearden’s own family quite well. Rebecca Wisocky, as Lillian Rearden, was the perfect bitchy wife. She played the role so well you wonder why Hank hadn’t started an affair much earlier. Mother Rearden, played by Christina Pickles, was also very well done. But Neil Barry as Phillip Rearden didn’t play the role well.

As for the other villains, Michael Lerner played the role of Wesley Mouch well. He fit the part, as did Jon Polito as Orren Boyle.

There is one scene I particularly liked between Dagny and Lillian. To explain why I want to briefly discuss Terrance Rattigan’s play The Browning Version. Rattigan was a favorite playwright of Rand’s and was reviewed favorably in Rand’s newsletter by novelist Kay Nolte Smith.

Smith noted that in Rattigan’s plays emotions are, by his own admission, “weapons of understatement and suggestion.” Rattigan said the problem of script writing is “what NOT to have your characters say, and how best to have them NOT say it.” This led Rattigan to face angry reviewers who want surface emotions, much as many have complained about Rand’s own work, and will perhaps do so for this film as well.

In Rattigan's play schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris is presented with a copy of the Browning version of the Agamemnon by a student, John Taplow. This gift touches Crocker-Harris deeply and he shows it to his wife, who “coolly and deliberately” “undercuts the gift’s meaning by throwing doubt on the sincerity of Taplow’s motive.” Present at the moment is a man that Crocker-Harris knows to be his wife’s lover. The lover, seeing how cruel she really is, decides to leave her and extends his friendship to Crocker-Harris. And, it appears that Crocker-Harris is now prepared to leave her as well. The gifting of the book revealed the inner natures of all three of these characters and it changed completely how they related to one another.

The same thing happens in regards to Rearden’s gift of the bracelet to Lillian. At their anniversary party Lillian is wearing, and insulting, the bracelet that Hank had made for her out of Rearden metal. Dagny, who is present, takes a diamond necklace she is wearing and offers to trade it for the bracelet while Hank is watching. Lillian is first surprised and then quite anxious to do the exchange, never understanding what the bracelet meant to her husband and why it was a symbol of who he was. In rejecting the bracelet she rejected Hank. What on the surface appears to be an exchange of a gift is the exchange of the giver instead.  Lillian’s contempt for her husband is fully revealed and Dagny’s admiration is made crystal clear. It is what gives Hank permission to begin a relationship with Dagny. Again I fear the point is too subtle for many critics.

I long believed this was a film that could not be made. And perhaps yet it will not be finished since this is just part one. But the scriptwriters gave us a plausible scenario as to why railroads are once again important. I am happy to grant any scriptwriter the premise of their story and go from there. And in this case the premise, that gasoline had reached astronomical costs per gallon is, quite unfortunately, plausible.

The film stays relatively true to the novel, with the one egregious error of Galt’s speech to Ellis.  It is hard for me to comment on general production quality. Our theater was so packed I was too close to the screen to judge it well and I suspect the projection equipment was less than optimal. I would need to see it on the television to judge that for myself.  But on-line previews, such as the one I used here, indicates the problem was the theater not the production. The acting was adequate and ranged from very good for some characters to a bit wooden for others. The script was also adequate bar the Galt fiasco.

Update 4/25: Since writing this I have seen an interview with the producers talking about the high definition equipment used to film the story. This would indicate that the problems were theater based. 

If I were the money behind the film I would change the Galt character immediately. The genie is out of the bottle regarding the awful comments Galt gives at the very end and I’m not sure how to solve that. I would drop Paul Johansson as the director and add someone who can see when they are getting less than the best the actors have to offer. Some scenes are just average in acting ability and this story line demands more than that.  I think I would also look for a distributer other than Rocky Mountain Pictures. This is an outfit that mainly markets “faith-based” films including the relatively dishonest film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. One of their currents films advertises itself as, “The first ever 3-D animated, family-friendly, faith-based movie released to theaters!”

What is sad is that the film Atlas Shrugged, while adequate and acceptable, is not all it could be. It does fall short of the novel but I suspect any film would. But, it is also clear that there is enough here, that with adequate resources, it could have been a great film. That the major studios shunned it is the tragedy because they could have provided the funding and talent needed to make this film worthy of the novel.

Yes, I think you should see the film. I even think most people will enjoy the film. I hope the trilogy is finished and I hope they learn from some of the errors and improve the film. And I hope more people will read the novel and get the full treatment as well.

Update 4/25: I have been shocked by some of the explicit dishonesty in reviewing this film. A particularly dishonest piece was written by Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel. He headlined it "'Atlas Shrugged in '1,000 theaters?' Uh, no." For context let us explain what the producers actually said first, since Moore makes shit up. The film opened in 299 theaters. The producers said that it would then go to 465 theaters in the second week and 1,000 in the third week. Moore falsifies what was said and then claims the producers were engaged in was propaganda. His sentence on it is a bit incoherent. "What, what the facts don't fit, Dr. Goebbels, you just make up stuff?" It reads like a statement but has a question mark making it a question, but as a question it doesn't make sense. 

He claims the producers said the film would go from 300 to 1,000 theaters. They did, but they also said it would only got to 1,000 on by the end of the month, not the next week.  Moore then writes, "Well, the weekend has begun. And that 'nearly 1000' screens? It's actually well under 500." You see what I mean about dishonest. Yes, it is under 500 this week which is precisely what the producers said was scheduled for this week. The 1,000 was only scheduled for a week later. All the press releases stated this quite clearly and other news outlets reported that statement accurately. But Moore goes on: "So are John Aglialoro (producer) et al liars? Naaaah. 'Hollywood fibs." Movie producers exaggerate all the time. I cover them. I know this. No WAY they were going to grab an extra 700 screens for Easter Weekend." Of course they never said they would, they said they would bet an extra 166 screens by Easter, and they did, they said the extra 700 would take until after Easter to happen. But Moore then says that people who challenge his account "shrilly call me a liar and worse based on their ignorance and gullibility." Considering Moore misquoted the original press release and made claims the producers did NOT make it think the ignorance is his own.

He also claimed that the film had only taken in $2 million since its release. His column was dated 4/23. BoxOfficeMojo had the box office take at just a hair under $3 million on that day. If he wrote the column a day earlier it was at $2.5 million. Either way Moore ignored a widely accepted estimate of the box office take and claimed one that was either 33% lower, or 25% lower than the actual take, depending on which day you use. Given that box office takes are revised daily, he knew his column of the 23rd should use estimates available at the time and not estimates from five days earlier. 

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