Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged is a legend in the literary world. Her novel is one of the foundations for laissez-faire capitalism. Whether you agree with her or not, you would be a chump to discount the power of Rand’s writings, especially Atlas Shrugged. I find it amazing that it took over 50 years after the book’s publication and almost 30 years after Rand died in 1982 to get this into the theaters.
The film has several interesting characters, Dagny Taggart, Vice-President in charge of her family’s old Trans-Continental rail-road, Hank Rearden an industrialist who has developed a new metal stronger and lighter that traditional steal and Ellis Wyatt, a Colorado oil man that loses the freedom to run his business the way he wants to.
The protagonist, Dagny Taggart, is clearly the brains behind the operation of the family railroad and her moronic brother is no more than a puppet and a bad one at that. Curiously one of her top managers comes into Dagny’s office to resign. Dagny throws money at him hoping to keep him on. When she asks why are you leaving and that she deserves the truth, he simply responds “Who is John Galt/”
For the rest of the movie we see black and white still shots of people with their names, occupations and the date of their “disappearance.” So who is John Galt? Well Rand does not tell you until the last third of her 1,100 page novel. The movie follows suit leaving the viewer with few clues revealing who John Galt is.
To my surprise, Atlas Shrugged Part I turned into an intriguing, stylish film that did not water down the Randian message in the least. In fact, the film’s format seems to free the characters in some sense from the limitations of Rand’s prose and give more clarity and purpose to the story, while keeping its message firmly at the film’s center.
When the novel was first published in 1957, the rail industry was still a central key to the American economy. The film takes place in the near future, starting in 2016, and cleverly uses a global energy crisis to return rail to a central position in American industry. Economic decline has pushed American government with ever-increasing speed into interventionism and central planning. Politicians and lobbyists scream about fairness and the need to force the wealthy to pay their share in order to show compassion.
A few titans of industry resist the momentum of socialism — or to be more accurate, the crony capitalism that precedes and abets socialism and eventually fascism (personally I am always worried about any “ism”). Dagny Taggart needs to save her family’s railroad empire from her incompetent brother, and turns to steel producer Henry Rearden for a revolutionary new metal for aging and unreliable tracks. Meanwhile, prominent and successful men keep disappearing without a trace, and no one knows where they have gone — except perhaps Dagny’s old flame Francisco, who may not be the dissipated playboy he seems.
The best word to describe Atlas Shrugged Part 1 is … surprising. It’s surprisingly well-paced, surprisingly intelligent, surprisingly well-acted, and surprisingly entertaining. Perhaps most surprising of all, it has me thinking about my intellectual roots. Let’s be clear, the film is not for everyone, but then again what film is?