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Ed Driscoll

The Finest Movie about the Railroad Industry Since Silver Streak

April 25th, 2011 - 4:18 am

By the time I got around to seeing the long-long-long awaited film version of Atlas Shrugged, my expectations were so lowered by its reviews, as long as the actors didn’t bump into the scenery and I didn’t see a “MADE BY LIONEL” logo on any of the trains, I probably would have considered the film a success on some level.

But actually, as the film unfolded and gathered steam — to use an appropriately railroad-themed analogy — I sorta, kinda, perhaps in spite of myself, began to like it. (WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD.) I’d say the film was more enjoyable than any of the Star Wars prequels, but that’s setting the bar awfully low, in retrospect. But I guess that’s the trade-off. In the era of political correctness, you can have zillion-dollar films that are shows about nothing, or a slightly stiff low-budget film that will give you plenty to talk—and argue—about afterwards.

In his review at the Corner, Mark Steyn compares Atlas to “out-takes from Dynasty:”

Incidentally, I finally got to see Atlas Shrugged The Movie, which has been roundly mocked by various reviewers, including on the right (PJ O’Rourke). I broadly agree with Andrew Stuttaford’s take. The design is kinda goofy and a lot of the acting is like out-takes from Dynasty, but it’s still about something in a way that any number of slicker products aren’t. And in particular it’s about an America in which government departments with benignly technocratic names regulate, cannibalize and confiscate private companies in the supposed interests of “equalizing” differences between states.

Crazy, huh?

Let’s stick with stuff that’s far more plausible – like Sean Penn’s Valerie Plame movie…

Certainly the TV-movie-on-steroids feel of the film’s somewhat low-budget production values helps to create those Dynasty flashbacks, particularly in the film’s rather expository first two acts.

And speaking of TV, it was fun watching the veteran character actors who fill the supporting roles. Look, it’s Michael Lerner, from the Starksky & Hutch pilot. It’s Jerry Seinfeld’s landlord! It’s Jimmy Barrett from the second season of Mad Men. It’s Quark! It’s the crooked cop who sold out Sonny Crockett to Frank Zappa on Miami Vice! And so on.

Massive Suspension of Disbelief Overcome

At the start of the film, the audience, particularly those who aren’t that familiar with the book, are faced with two massive suspensions of disbelief to overcome:

  1. As Kathy Shaidle joked, “Seriously, people. It’s about a railroad. In the future.
  2. Rand’s legendary arch dialogue, which makes the tone of Woody Allen’s serious films such as Interiors seem like natural conversation.

Let’s tackle that first part first. Given what blue screen and CGI is capable of these days, I would have preferred a much more stylized production design. Something along the lines of Mad Men meets Citizen Kane meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which would have placed the film in the 1930s through the 1950s, the golden-age of railroading, and perhaps tied it in visually as a sequel of sorts to the film version of The Fountainhead. But having seen the film, and understanding the budget constraints the filmmakers were under, I understand why the very slightly futuristic (read: contemporary) setting was chosen, as the filmmakers needed loads of ultra-high definition video shots of trains to make the film work. And certainly all of the realistic railroad shots (often shot at night or at sunrise/sunset to obscure the railroad names on the locomotives and passenger cars) help to set the stage for the digital effects employed to dramatize the rise of the John Galt Line in the film’s third act. (Incidentally, while we take railroads for granted, and cross-country passenger railroading was rendered superfluous by jet aviation, unlike Obama’s fantasies of high speed passenger railroading, freight trains will likely be a vital part of how durable goods move across the country for decades to come.)

Then there’s the dialogue. Before I went into this film, I only had one hope: Please don’t be as arch as the Gary Cooper/Patricia Neal version of The Fountainhead, a film brimming with important ideas (particularly given that it was shot in 1949, in the wake of nearly two decades of New Deal/WWII American collectivism), but laid low with big swatches of cringe-inducing dialogue. As Harrison Ford famously said in response to George Lucas’ impenetrable techno-babble dialogue during the making of Star Wars, “George, you can type this s***, but you can’t say it.” Rand’s dialogue works on the printed page, where the reader can imagine her larger-than-life characters, but even someone as iconic as Gary Cooper couldn’t make non-stop dialogue such as this work on the big screen.

This version of Atlas Shrugged probably makes Rand’s dialogue as digestible as it could possibly be in a movie. And the actors, both the aforementioned supporting vets, and the film’s stars, relative newcomers in comparison, do a pretty good job of making it work. If she isn’t blacklisted by Hollywood for appearing in this cinematic samizdat, the fetching Taylor Schilling, who plays Dagny Taggart, could have quite a career ahead of her. And Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden has a certain Coop-level diffident coolness, though without the superstar-aura that Cooper brought to his role.

A User Manual for the Obama Administration

While Kyle Smith questions the producers’ estimates of how well the film is doing commercially, the audience yesterday at the Santana Row CineArts theater was about the size of the audience when we saw The King’s Speech there earlier this year—a pretty good-sized crowd for a cinematic treatise on free-market capitalism even in deep blue San Jose. And based on their applause when the closing titles went up, they seemed pretty happy, after over 50 years, to finally see Rand’s book finally hit the big screen. (Drop me a line if you’re a fellow local who’s seen the film there.)

No one will confuse this version of Atlas Shrugged with say, a David Lean-quality Super Panavision ultra-big budget adaptation of a novel. But it got the job done, and considering America’s current economy is a nightmarish mélange of corporatism meets Gangster Government, its message is certainly timely.

Maybe too timely: I wonder if President Obama will look at the film’s opening montage, which references the price of gas going up by 2016 to about $38.50 per gallon look around at his staff, and say, fellas, dare to dream big.

Or to paraphrase Steven Den Beste’s quip about George Orwell’s 1984: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: a warning for the rest of us; a user manual for the Obama administration.

Update: Film critic Christian Toto on “Lessons learned from ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” excellent advice for any budding indie filmmaker.

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