Monday, April 18, 2011

GSL Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged Part 1

At long, long last, it's here: the film version of Ayn Rand's libertarian opus Atlas Shrugged. Or, at least, part one of that opus. And, in spite of a large number of negative reviews from mainstream film critics, we have to say that the movie is definitely worth seeing.

It's tough holding this thing after all the knives Roger Ebert stuck in my back.
We tried to go into this film with as few expectations as possible. On one hand, we realized it would be ridiculous to take the initial reviews at face value. Given that the mention of Rand's name inspires intense scorn out of about 95% of the population, we expected bad reviews even if the film was the second coming of Goodfellas. If you need to be reminded of how hostile Hollywood is to libertarianism, please remember that they gave Oscars to Inside Job and Bowling for Columbine. So we knew we'd have to form our own opinion.

On the other hand, we were ready for the possibility that the film would be garbage. Given the low budget and the rapid timeline of the production, it was certainly possible that AS Part 1 would simply be a terrible film. But more than that, we considered the particular challenge of adapting a film script from Rand's novel. While Atlas has arguably introduced more people to libertarianism than any other book, it's essentially 1,100 pages of philosophical, political, and economic argument, loosely wrapped around a dystopian-scifi storyline. The novel is often criticized for having shallow, unbelievable characters; while this isn't true of Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden, the story's two principal characters, others, like the villains and John Galt, don't evolve in the course of the story, and we think it suffers from that. Much of the novel's "dialogue" consists of long discourses. And, of course, many of the book's ideas are quite challenging, and Rand's writing style is intended to be as provocative as possible. Of course, none of this means that we don't like the book; on the contrary, we consider Atlas Shrugged one of the more influential things we've ever read. While we reject a good bit of Rand's philosophy, the point is that the book challenged us to clarify a great deal of our thinking on all kinds of issues. So even where we disagreed with Rand, it was important to us to understand, clearly and logically, why we disagreed. Nonetheless, it's very difficult to make an entertaining movie about philosophy, or that can provoke the same sort of experience in the viewer that the novel does in the reader. So, we were concerned that Atlas was the sort of novel that would be all but impossible to turn into a good movie.

Honestly? Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is pretty good. It's not a masterpiece, but it's good. While the script does have its clunky, awkward moments, it largely eschews the novel's long monologues and angry tone for more natural dialogue. Some of the book's prominent characters, including Eddie Willers and Francisco d'Anconia, feel barely fleshed out, though this may be something that Parts 2 and 3 are intended to correct. And, of course, if you're expecting a film with big-budget polish, this $10 million movie won't be it. But apart from that, it's a good movie. The screenwriters appeared to choose the storyline over the philosophy, in contrast to the novel; as a result, what you've got is a briskly-paced story about driven, capable people who love running businesses, with the broader themes being demonstrated rather than spoken. Which is probably the right way to do it, in the context of a film.

So, we give Atlas Shrugged Part 1 three out of four stars. If you're reading this blog, we think you'll like it.


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