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    Atlas Shrugged, Part I (2011) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | April 18, 2011

    Grant Bowler and Taylor Schilling make a discovery in "Atlas Shrugged, Part I"

    Back to the Old Drawing Board

    [xrr rating=3/5]

    “A house can have integrity, just like a person; and just as seldom….No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose.” – Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 1943.

    The same goes for movies. John Aglialoro, the multimillionaire who just spent nearly $20 million of his own money to finance the movie version of Atlas Shrugged, would have done well to re-read Rand’s ultimate aesthetic statement before embarking on the Quixotic task of adapting her ultimate philosophical statement to the big screen.

    Therein lies the problem.  Ever since Rand herself wrote the screenplay for Warner Bros.’ 1949 version of The Fountainhead, she – as well as her Objectivist progeny – have been on guard in protecting the thematic integrity of any filmed version of her next and final novel, Atlas Shrugged. Rand got burned by studio chief Jack Warner and producer Henry Blanke on protecting The Fountainhead from being savaged by puritanical busybodies – not the least of which was The Catholic Legion – from slashing out objectionable “selfish” and allegedly misanthropic quotes from the final shooting script.

    Well, I am happy to report that Atlas Shrugged, Part I is intellectually and philosophically consistent to the novel.  Well done, boys!

    But, I don’t go to the movie theater to watch philosophically consistent messages. I go to be swept away by a great plot, intelligent and adept screenwriting, intuitive performances, breathtaking cinematography, concise editing, and an impassioned soundtrack.  The inclusion of John Aglialoro’s name as Brian Patrick O’Toole’s co-scenarist, and the predominance of Atlas Society’s David Kelley’s name in the credits, spoke volumes about the (understandably) misplaced priority of making certain that this film passed ideological muster – at the expense of the movie’s aesthetic integrity. I don’t fault Aglialoro and Kelley for standing guard over the movie’s philosophy, but would like to gently ask them, “When it comes to the movie’s artistic unity, who’s minding the store?”

    I have but one question for O’Toole and director Paul Johansson: Do you understand which novel you were tasked with bringing to the silver screen?  I honestly don’t think they did. I am not an Objectivist nitpicker with a laundry list of must-have scenes and lines. To me, Atlas Shrugged is not my Holy Bible. But, I would assume that any filmmaker worth his salt would regard the responsibility of making the movie version as akin to the Holy Grail. To treat its presentation and execution as a quest – not a slap-dash run to the finish line.

    For months now, the movie’s cheerleaders have been hyping this production with the strangely-admitted caveat that even if the movie isn’t hot stuff, that at least it will improve sales of the book version. I am not being flippant, but Ayn Rand – who worked for Cecil B. DeMille and Howard Hughes’s RKO Pictures, and wrote for Hal Wallis at Paramount – would probably advise those selfsame cheerleaders, “Check your premises.” Movies were a religion for Rand, and while she had her limitations as a screenwriter, she fully understood that the unique art of the cinema was meant to be larger than life.

    I liked Atlas Shrugged, Part I. I also like “The Flintstones,” vanilla ice cream, and playing a round of checkers. But, I love great works of art, such as Bernini’s David, Arturo Toscanini’s 1936 recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (Parts I and II). Nobody ever went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet expecting an interpretation of the star-crossed lovers’ like affair.

    I like The Godfather, Part III. Strangely, this film – which first saw its chances of being made for the big screen when Godfather producer Albert S. Ruddy proposed putting Rand’s magnum opus on celluloid – has come full-circle. It reminds me eerily of Coppola’s ill-fated performance in The Godfather, Part III. That’s not Francis Ford Coppola, but his daughter, Sofia Coppola. And that’s Sofia Coppola the actress in way over her head, not the somewhat competent director.

    Don’t blame the actors for Atlas Shrugged’s flaws: Most cast members do an excellent job. Taylor Schilling, as heroine Dagny Taggart, the tough executive out to save her grandfather’s railroad, is perfectly physically cast – her appearance recalls Eva Marie Saint during the 1950s. Her performance is competent, and at times, moving. (There are moments where she seems to be searching for a bit of dialogue – then finding it – but I blame Johansson for that stumbling).

    Grant Bowler as steel magnate Hank Rearden does a superb job. He really groks the part, and grounds the movie with his incisive performance. He’s solid and masculine enough to carry the movie on his shoulders (no pun intended), and only relies on nuance sparingly and always apropos. Michael Lerner and Jon Polito bring decades of charater acting chops to the movie’s villain roles, duplicitous lobbyist Wesley Mouch and crony capitalist Orren Boyle, respectively. There were moments I was inwardly cheering on Graham Beckel’s fiery performance as oil baron Ellis Wyatt.

    Where this movie suffers is primarily in its heavy-handed and lackluster script. It reads more like a serialization of a Reader’s Digest condensed book translated into some obscure tongue, and then back into English.  I had seen an interview with screenwriter O’Toole a couple months ago and he did a marvelous job describing the process of adapting a novel to the screenplay format. He fully understands the importance of condensing and editing.

    The problem is that O’Toole condensed the novel to such a point as to render the final product confining and claustrophobic. What seems to totally elude him is that a movie’s pace is not a checklist of shots and scenes to breeze through. Alfred Hitchcock understood that a movie’s suspense required not only a breakneck chase scene, but prolonged, fingernail-biting moments of waiting and inactivity. Like a symphony, a movie must have equal portions of tension and release.

    Without this dynamic, a film becomes monotonous. I have often thought that Atlas Shrugged should have been filmed in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Otto Preminger, when he was at the peak of his power of making sprawling epics that immortalized their source material, whether Leon Uris’s Exodus or Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. Preminger had the discipline and vision to do full justice to these modern literary classics.

    The answer to the generic feel of Atlas Shrugged, Part I lies not in the question “Who Is John Galt?” but rather in asking, “Who Is Paul Johansson?”  Based upon this movie, the answer is: An artistic non-entity, rather much like Rand’s architectural second-rater Peter Keating. Most critics have lambasted the “made for television” aesthetic quality of this movie. That is an insult to many of my favorite television programs and miniseries, such as “The Twilight Zone,” “The A-Team,” and “Shogun.”

    Why is it, that in the 21st century we can have stupendous miniseries with big-screen production values, like Band of Brothers and John Adams, but this movie feels more like a straight-to-video feature? The question answers itself.

    From the overuse of subtitles to denote the movie’s locations – we are told that Hank and Dagny would find Ivy Starnes in Durrance, Louisiana, so why was it necessary for a title that says “DURRANCE, LOUISIANA”? – to the breezy pace of the movie’s plot revelations, Atlas Shrugged’s makers seemed to believe that imparting the gravitas of the book was beside the point.

    Atlas Shrugged has a great mystery story. The finding of Galt’s motor was a mystery but in the movie, Rearden seems to find it on an old Filofax or Lexus/Nexus search. The identity of John Galt was a mystery. People ask, as a throwaway line, “Who Is John Galt?” in the book, admitting their weary helplessness in the face of everyday malaise; in the movie, a shadowy, hulking guy in a fedora, stalks industrialists, and key characters place more weight on the question than the anchor holding the U.S.S. Nimitz to the sea floor.

    The character of Eddie Willers, who is the key to finding out Galt’s identity, is rendered superfluous in the movie – the movie’s ending narration at the end of part one reveals a spoiler not meant to be divulged until way later as to Galt’s identity and mission. Edi Gathegi’s role is basically reduced to being Dagny’s receptionist, relaying phone calls and introducing visitors to her office. Note to the movie’s producers: If you’re going to make Eddie Willers black, don’t be so obvious by making him into a male version of Nichelle Nichols’ character Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek.”

    Atlas Shrugged, Part I, comes in at 102 minutes. The standard for a Hollywood drama has long been 120 minutes – eighteen minutes difference.

    With eighteen additional minutes, they could have made a picture that breathed. It wouldn’t have felt as though the whole movie consisted of hopping from formal party to velvet-rope restaurant to smoke-filled bar. When, for example, Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) approached Hank Rearden to inquire where the partygoers attending Rearden’s anniversary celebration would be without Rearden’s munificence and charity,it would have underscored Francisco’s inquiry if a window – out of which a bleak and forboding tundra could be seen for a few seconds – had been available. Or, if Ellis Wyatt’s revelry with Hank and Dagny celebrating the successful run on the John Galt Line were punctuated with him throwing his champagne glass against the wall (indicating his fatalistic sense of the future), it would have made for so much more poignancy than his mostly perfunctory exit.

    And, one other thing: Don’t insult the intelligence of railroad buffs such as I by trying to pass off a Chicago-area Metra commuter train as a cross-country mainline passenger train. Don’t show me shot after shot of freight yards without one single hopper, boxcar, or switch engine emblazoned with the Taggart emblem. Don’t have the engineer driving the diesel version of the Amtrak Acela on the maiden voyage of the John Galt Line look and dress more like the cashier of an Amtrak regional line snack bar.

    These, and so many other, lost opportunities make for the demarcation line between an acceptable movie and a classic. With more soul-searching and forethought, this movie could have been a classic.

    You’ve got two more rounds, gentlemen. Fire Johansson and O’Toole, and get some people who know movies to pen and shoot the next two installments. For God’s sake, act as if you care you’re filming an epic.

    Topics: Dramas, Epic Movies, Movie Reviews, Political Dramas, Sci-Fi Movies | Comments Off on Atlas Shrugged, Part I (2011) – Movie Review