Selfishness, the Movie


In 1994, Constantin Film had a problem.  They possessed the film rights to the Fantastic Four but would lose them unless they made a movie right away.  They also did not have the budget necessary to create the kind of film required.

This was the solution:

The director and actors were paid low salaries and told that if the movie was not released to theaters, it would at least be used as a pilot for a television series.  The producers were lying—they had no intention of releasing the movie.  However, this cinematic abortion allowed them to hold onto the filming rights.

In 2005, Constantin Film made another Fantastic Four movie, this one starring Jessica Alba.  It had a budget of $100 million dollars.  Needless to say, the special effects were a bit more sophisticated.

The difference between 1994’s Fantastic Four and Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is that they released this one in theaters.

A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged has been discussed for years with stars such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford all expressing interest at one time or another.  Instead, we have a “cast of future stars” in a low budget production rushed out so the current company holding the rights could take advantage of it.  I attended an early screening of the movie with a host of Beltway Right libertarians and conservatives.  We received free tickets and (contrary to the message of the movie) free popcorn and drinks.  The marketing and distribution of the film seem designed to turn it into a hipster libertarian version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.   Of course, given the realities of filmmaking and “development hell,” it’s amazing someone even made it all.

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus had the working title of The Strike. It tells the story of what happens when those who move the world, the producers and captains of industry, are pushed too far.  The story begins with Midas Mulligan watching annoying liberals prattle on television with their usual clichés.  As he steps outside, a mysterious figure in a film noir trench coat and hat approaches and tells him that he knows what it’s like “to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy.”  Here, such a line does not merit so much as a cocked eyebrow, and Midas Mulligan vanishes with the stranger.  He is not the last.  The heroine of the story, Dagny Taggart, attempts to keep her transcontinental railroad afloat in these chaotic circumstances as her friends and allies seemingly abandon her one by one. As the country sinks into the abyss, one useless question is raised again and again, “Who is John Galt?”

The book was written in 1957 and reflects its time.  All of the heroes are titans of industry that are actually industries.  Dagny Taggart runs a railroad.  Hank Rearden, who develops a compound lighter and more powerful than steel called Rearden Metal, runs a series of mills.  The charismatic Francisco D’Anconia is the scion of a mining empire.  Ellis Wyatt develops new ways of exploiting oil reserves.  The “producers” actually produce things.  As this doesn’t exactly fit with our contemporary economy, the story engages in some creative alternative history.  It posits a crippling economic recession (check) in which fuel prices skyrocket (check), thus making air travel untenable (the TSA might take care of that first).  Railroads thus become the lifeline of the country.  The opening scenes consist of protests calling for more welfare and shots of urban decay.  (Interestingly, some of the signs in the socialist protests at the beginning mention Martin Luther King Jr.  Sadly, when the inevitable accusations of racism come, I’m half expecting an explanation that MLK was not only a pro-capitalist Republican, but a libertarian and an Objectivist.)

As even a third of Atlas Shrugged is too much to film, the movie focuses on three main subplots.  First, there are the technical struggles by Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden to save their businesses and the country.  The most important is Dagny’s attempt to save her railroad by replacing part of the line with Rearden Metal.  This will allow her to serve the new oil fields opened up by Ellis Wyatt, which the country needs to survive.  Her sniveling socialist brother and cowardly Board of Directors bow to hostile public opinion and government officials and refuse to let her do it.  In response, she forms the John Galt Line to build the line independently. The journey of the train on the John Galt Line made of the supposedly unsafe Rearden Metal is Taggart’s and Rearden’s greatest triumph.  Easily the highlight of the film, the movie captures their exhilaration in a thrilling sequence as the train rockets over the countryside on the silver-blue rails of Rearden Metal.  The shot of a bullet train roaring over an impossibly small Rearden Metal bridge over a huge chasm is an especially striking visual.

The movie also touches on the mystery of a partially constructed motor they discover in the wreck of an abandoned auto factory.  The motor could create power from the atmosphere itself, solving the energy crisis at a stroke, but they can’t complete it themselves.  In the book, this is a kind of detective story where Dagny and Hank interview one person after another who had a past with the factory.   Rand is at her peak here, drawing devastating character sketches of wealthy socialists who preached brotherhood and universal love and left only destruction in their wake.  Here, simply because of time, the movie essentially skims over the mystery of why the motor was abandoned and the factories failed, robbing the episode of much of its force.

The second subplot is the gradual escalation of socialism within Washington DC.  One of the greatest joys of Rand’s books is her stunningly vitriolic portrait of parlor room socialists and trendy intellectuals.  Michael Lerner (the actor, not the socialist rabbi) is the only actor that will you will recognize in the movie and he captures the grubby mannerisms, bloated appearance, and squinty eyed scheming that you would associate with lobbyists and bureaucrats. However, the movie fails to capture the general feel of the cocktail parties and closed door meetings that Rand managed to convey, that mysterious progressive mind meld of uniform viewpoints on politics, aesthetics, and culture that Joe Sobran termed “The Hive.”  Instead, the movie downplays the philosophical and cultural motivations of the socialists and presents them simply as materialistic schemers, which undermines Rand’s larger point about the roots of accomplishment and productivity on one hand and altruism and failure on the other.

The final subplot is the affair between Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart.  Rebecca Wisocky as Hank’s wife, Lilian Rearden, perfectly captures the passive-aggressive master manipulator that Rand portrayed.  (Try to watch the beginning of this scene and not squirm.)  It is impossible not to sympathize with Hank Rearden, who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a younger version of Livia Soprano.  In one brutal scene, Rearden expends his lust on his wife, who contemptuously smirks “done then?” after he finishes.  The audience groaned and gasped as if someone dropped the n-word at the dinner table.

Still, the movie distorts, and really destroys, the motivation behind Rearden and Dagny’s affair.  If Rand’s novel has one fundamental idea, it is that the moral choices of a person’s private life and public life lead to the same kinds of consequences.   This is the real internal conflict within Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, who are actually the true enemies of John Galt throughout most of the book.  Their lack of understanding and their willingness to live and produce for the “looters” needlessly prolongs the suffering of the world.  Crucially, Rand also believed there was a connection between private behavior (especially sex) and one’s deepest held values, which is why her ideal man could never fall for a chorus girl, but only a heroine.  The movie ignores this completely and manages to strip away the emotional complexity of characters in an Ayn Rand novel—which is no mean feat.

Hank Rearden, for example, is actually a very complex character.  He is a successful businessman, but he accepts the premises of altruism for both public morality and private behavior.  He doesn’t know how to resist the spirit of socialism in the wider world and he remains faithful to a wife who doesn’t love him and actually seeks to destroy him.  Despite this, out of a sense of duty, he resists his temptation to Dagny.  When they do come together, it is tortured and painful for Rearden.  He is filled with contempt for Dagny for succumbing to what he sees as a base desire.  He also hates himself for betraying his marriage vows, even if his wife seemingly hates him.  He is at war with himself for most of the book until he realizes that sex with Dagny is a symbol of his deepest held values and a celebration of the best in him.  Perhaps this theory is insane—one wit has joked that Rand’s idea of sexual bliss was being raped on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange.   Nonetheless, this is her idea and one critical to the themes of her novel.

Instead, in the movie, Dagny and Hank come together with a wildly unnecessary preface of “should I kiss you” type dialogue straight out of Dawson’s Creek. Then they joke easily and guiltlessly about having an affair the next day.  While satisfying for libertines, this defeats the whole function of the affair in the story by removing the conflict and making it meaningless sex.  They might as well have cut out the whole thing.

The character of Francisco d’Anconia is similarly rendered pointless.  In the book, he is a Latin aristocrat of noble blood (with blue eyes, following Rand’s usual Nordicist pattern) whose staggering intelligence, wealth, and promise is seemingly thrown away when he becomes a playboy and the life of every party.  He is also the first love of Dagny Taggart and breaks her heart when he turns into a rake.  In the movie, rather than a dashing Latin lover, Francisco looks more like a pool boy who just climbed out of the water.  The guests at the cocktail parties look at him when he enters, but I imagine it is not out of excitement but bewilderment at why the help is drinking with the rich people.  Lacking charisma, charm or even the elementary character development or backstory that Rand provided, the audience can be forgiven for wondering who the hell this guy is or why we should care.  With the screenplay he was given to work with, the poor actor playing him was probably wondering the same thing.  (And no, his famous speech on why money is the root of all good is not in the movie.)

The movie also casually dismantles the whole reason for his existence.   In the book, Francisco undertakes the greatest sacrifice of any of the characters, giving up any chance of being with Dagny in order to help John Galt save the world.  He is ruthless to Dagny, telling her to her face that she is the real enemy of the things she claims to value and that the best thing she could do is let her railroad die rather than let looters have it.  He deeply wounds the woman he loves for years and can’t even explain why because he knows Dagny’s suffering is necessary as long as she fails to come to his conclusions herself.  In the movie, when Dagny Taggart comes to him to beg for money for the John Galt Line, Francisco mutters meekly that he has none available.  Of course, he’s lying because he doesn’t want to have to say the truth to her face.  A small point perhaps, but given that Francisco destroyed his business, his reputation, and the relationship with the love of his life for the sake of that trifle, it’s probably not too much to ask for the movie not to casually throw it away.

Another key character, Eddie Willard, (blond haired and blue eyed in the book, the token Lando Calrissian here) represents the competent but not extraordinary man.  In the book, he secretly loves Dagny, talks about his fears with John Galt, and essentially loses everything at the end of the novel, the only “good guy” who suffers a completely tragic fate.  Here, he is simply another nonentity, who chatters Dagny’s orders into his Bluetooth.

If Rand’s novels have been accused of having characters that simply serve as empty vessels for ideas, the movie has stripped away even the ideas from the main characters, giving us no reason to care about these people.

The movie also strips away what was truly original and subversive in Rand’s vision.  Rather than a savage critique of egalitarianism and the proud worship of hierarchy, beauty, and excellence, not just in politics but in humanity, it gives us vague policy prescriptions and laugh lines for the libertarian crowd.  When Rearden crumples up a request for communication from a union and throws it in the trash, the crowd cheered.  (In the book of course, the longtime head of the union for Rearden’s workers helps him.)  Rather than presenting a certain “sense of life,” as Rand suggested, it basically tells us to donate to the CATO Institute and read Reason.

This is what the backers of the film intend and it will succeed on this front, despite the low production values.  If Starz made a miniseries about the life of Ernst Jünger, or the Science Fiction Channel suddenly decided to buy the rights to Alex Kurtagic’s upcoming  Antarktos, certainly it would have a huge impact.  Here, Atlas Shrugged will be instantly plugged into a far larger network than anything available to radical traditionalists.  Libertarian think tanks, student groups, Tea Party groups, and free market discussion forums will all be telling their members to see it on its release date (April 15 – get it?).  Once released, safe and snug and protected from any of the subversive implications of Rand’s thought and with issues of sociobiology, culture, and identity easily abstracted away to nonexistence, the movie will do quite well and live on as a cult classic regardless of its limited theatrical release.

The problem is that the real world policy prescriptions of those promoting the movie don’t fit with Rand’s vision.  The kinds of places that could develop the motor that draws its energy from the atmosphere no longer exist, as Bell Labs and other private research laboratories have fallen from glory and institutions like DARPA don’t exactly fit with the Galt’s Gulch mentality.  Insofar as the American economy has a future, it seems to be based on manipulation of debt by the elite, litigation by the middle class, and selling ringtones among the lower class, with the occasional brilliant entrepreneur starting a website so we can more easily discuss Rihanna.  The American economy of factories, steel, oil, mining, and railroads does not seem to be a priority of the libertarian or conservative movements.  In fact, the Beltway Right has been a critical component of the effort to outsource America’s industrial capability as well as bringing in Third World peasants to scoop up whatever jobs are left.

Even the promotional literature distributed by the makers of the movie doesn’t really reflect reality.  It says, “What would happen if our producers disappear—Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, and other industrialists fall off the radar… their creative genius no longer powering America?”  Of course, there are two problems here.  One is titans of industry at the time Rand wrote her book were actual titans of industry that conquered nature and created new things.  Today, fortunes are made on the Internet, which essentially lets us consume more efficiently or “create” things that only exist online.  The second problem is that the titans of industry listed here are progressives.  The last time the titans of industry were right wing was probably sometime in the 19th century when huge industries were built behind a protective tariff (which libertarians hate) and corporations were headed by men like Henry Ford, General Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebeck, H. Smith Richardson and the like who would support things like the America First Committee and other right-wing initiatives.

In contrast, Sergey Brin and his company overwhelmingly support progressive Democrats.  The site also censors right-leaning web results and collaborates with the web censorship of the Chinese government, suggesting no real ideological commitment to free speech, although a definite commitment to political correctness.  Steve Jobs, meanwhile, proposed Al Gore for President in 2007.  He has donated over $250,000 to political causes between 1990 and 2010—all of which were Democratic.  If Galt’s Gulch were real, presumably it would look something like Berkeley, and Rand would be on trial for hate speech because she doesn’t have any Black capitalists in her books.  As far as other young and famous capitalist icons go, the obvious one that comes to mind is Mark Zuckerburg, inventor of Facebook.  Zuckerbuerg recently donated $100 million dollars to the public schools of Newark, NJ, on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”  If the Aryan capitalist Viking Ragnar Danneskjold liberated Mark Zuckerberg’s donations, Zuckerburg would just send more.  The moral code of the corporate elite of this country and the capitalist pinups Rand’s fanboys want us to fight for are promoting the exact kinds of altruism and victim worship that Rand despised.  If the kinds of “producers” identified here went “John Galt,” the only things that would change would be the decline in Democratic donations.

The movie culminates with the government passing a crushing regulatory law that cripples Ellis Wyatt.  In response, he abandons his oil fields and sets them aflame.  As Dagny Taggart reaches the hellish firestorm that is left, she unleashes a classic B-movie cry of denial worthy of Star Wars: Episode III.  The message of Atlas Shrugged was turned into something just as clichéd and predictable.  It has been scrubbed, sanitized, and made ready for your next “Students for Liberty” meeting so you can encourage more people to vote for the likes of Gary Johnson.

Rand’s vision, whatever else one thinks of it, was unique.  It transcended itself and contained implications that went beyond Rand’s actual policy positions and philosophy.  Despite its flaws, Atlas Shrugged is one of the most forthright defenses of the aristocratic principle ever penned.  It’s also a profound critique of the phony economy of banker and government manipulation and paean to an economy of production.  In this film, it has been transformed into a call to let the likes of George Soros and Warren Buffett pay fewer taxes, despite their own wishes, and to turn this holy cause into the rallying point of the conservative movement.  Unfortunately, I have no doubt the film will accomplish its purpose.