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Atlas Shrugged: a Cautionary Tale (Go See It!)

October 20th, 2012 - 5:40 pm

So,  I went to see Atlas Shrugged II this afternoon. All of my cinematic friends with whom I’d discussed the film assured me that it was terrible, “just like the first one.” A look at the “Rotten Tomatoes” movie site dramatizes what the critics’ opinion is: a 5 percent “fresh” rating, which I think is the lowest I’ve ever seen. I suspect that’s as much a political as an artistic assessment; and judging by the really horrible, and seemingly unending, series of previews for coming “attractions” I had to sit through to get to the feature presentation, I have to say that Atlas will certainly ought to have plenty of competition for that 5 percent fresh rating.

But I am not really interested in the cinematic qualities of the movie (or, for that matter, the literary qualities of the book upon which it based).  I’ll just say that I found both installments of the movie engrossing.

I have plenty of criticisms of Ayn Rand (some of which I lay out in “Can Art Be Defined?” in my book Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity). But I found I could easily bracket most of my criticisms while watching the two movies. For one thing, the movies are fun. Part two opens and closes with a nifty, pulse-rattling  jet chase, always a plus in my book. There is plenty of entertainment value.

Is Ayn Rand’s philosophy simplistic?  I think so. But she is also figure for our time. (I forget how many gazillions of copies her books have sold.) And that is because, whatever reservations one may have about her philosophy (or her prose), she highlighted one of the most critical issues we face today: encroaching statism and the assault on individual liberty and initiative that encroachment entails.

The movie Atlas Shrugged, like the book it is based on, is a heavily didactic work. People don’t like being lectured to, I understand that. But the message, the teaching, is an essential gospel for our age.  Although cast in different terms, it is part of the teaching that made Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom such an important work. In essence, the tocsin sounded by both Hayek and Rand revolves around the dangers of central planning (though the phenomenon has many names).  The dangers are both pragmatic,  leading directly to economic stagnation, and also psychological. One of “main points” of The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote in a new preface in 1956, is to underscore the “psychological change, the alteration in the character of the people” which “extensive government control brings about.” The name of that alteration is “dependency” and the movie Atlas Shrugged  effectively dramatizes that process and is choc-a-bloc with truly repellent specimens (the heroine Dagny Taggart’s spineless brother James, for example) and all-too-believable instances of statist intrusiveness. You may think it is a long way from from ObamaCare to the movie’s “Directive 10-289,” which, among other things, freezes incomes and transfers patents and copyrights to the government. But stop and think about Obama’s obscene 2700-page behemoth a moment. Even Ayn Rand didn’t contemplate a situation where the government would fine you (or, as Chief Justice Roberts would have it, “tax” you) for not  doing something.

I don’t want to go on about Atlas Shrugged. I know from experience how touchy Rand partisans can be. I did want to put it on record, however, that I enjoyed both installments of the movie. I recommend you forget what the critics have said and go see them. I might disagree with Rand about several important things. But she was conjuring with one of the most pressing issues of our day, an issue I tried to capture in the title of a recent Encounter book that I edited: The New Leviathan: The State versus the Individual in the Twenty-first Century.

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