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Has there ever been a Hollywood adaptation of a major novel as faithful and yet so misguided and downright strange as the three-part version of Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged that now comes to a conclusion with the third installment? Independently produced by Rand faithful and marketed almost exclusively to a like-minded audience, the project at the very least embodies a do-it-yourself tenacity the author herself would have vigorously endorsed, as box-office receipts have fallen very short of covering the productions’ costs. Self-distributed beginning Sept. 12 on 254 screens, the minimally promoted film will generate a box-office total close to those of the first two, which amounted to $4.6 million and $3.3 million, respectively.
That these hymns to the primacy of individualistic capitalism over big government exist at all is due to the money and will power of longtime rights-holder John Aglialoro who, when he was unable to secure studio financing or the participation of major star, forged ahead on his own with Part I. Endorsed by conservative radio hosts and hardly anyone else, the $20 million production, which was released on tax day 2011, clearly lost a load of money, and widespread critical hostility initially provoked Aglialoro to announce that he wouldn’t proceed with further installments. But a year later, Part II appeared and now, another two years on, Part III has arrived, with a stated budget of just one-quarter that of the original, part of it coming from a Kickstarter campaign.
The first remarkable aspect of the triptych is how stylistically consistent it is despite having employed three different directors. As such, it stands as a stiff rebuke to the auteur theory (would Rand have approved such an insult to artistic ownership?), as all three films sport a glossy, straightforward blandness of no stylistic ambition whatsoever.
And in a stroke that suggests a level of Bunuelian surrealism that even the master himself never approached, each Atlas installment features an entirely different set of leading actors in the main roles. It’s hard to imagine that the producers intended this approach from the start — it probably stemmed from the trilogy’s stop-and-start production history — but in the event it’s instructive how little difference it makes. Taylor Schilling was first and probably best in the leading role of railroad titan Dagny Taggart, but was followed in the part by Samantha Mathis and now Laura Regan. Steel industry leader Henry Reardon has been played by Grant Bowler, Jason Beghe and Rob Morrow; copper mining heir Francisco D’Anconia by Jsu Garcia, Esai Morales and Joaquin de Almeida; Dagny’s no-account brother James by Matthew Marsden, Patrick Fabian and Greg Germann, and so on down the line.
But this lack of cohesion proves far less bothersome than the fatal fact that Atlas Shrugged was never properly reconceived for a modern audience. Aglialoro and his collaborators committed themselves to transferring Rand’s last and most philosophically direct novel onscreen as accurately and reverently as possible. The central obstacle to this ambition is that the book is set in a United States of some 60 years ago, when the dominant industries Rand chose to focus on included railroads, steel and valuable metals. Setting the action in the present day but continuing to pretend that those businesses represent the height of American economic power is absurd; either the action needed to be set in period or different industries should have been substituted that would make sense today. (Ironically, today’s high-tech giants would seem to be perfect examples of genius-driven companies, some of them libertarian-led and none of them partial to regulation). If Atlas Shrugged was to have been filmed at all, it should have been placed in the hands of a visionary director with a fearless artistic and political temperament who might have boldly reimagined it for the modern times or, as the opening title says, “The day after tomorrow.”
Just as problematic from an ideological point of view is that Dagny’s great dream is the creation of an ultra-fast train. In the real world, such means of transportation has long since become the norm in Europe and Asia but not in the United States, where the stiffest opposition comes from conservatives, who have lined up against such projects because they are seen as government boondoggles. This paradox has conveniently been overlooked by the trilogy’s band of admirers.
The titular mystery man, a common worker who rejects the imposed collectivist mentality, announces that, “I’ll stop the motor of the world,” then disappears for 12 years until he rescues Dagny from the ruins of a private jet crash. While the nation, now called the “People’s State of America,” crumbles under the weight of government controls, its intended saviors, centered around the handsome, charismatic Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), philosophize and drink a great deal in a bucolic, Napa-like setting.
While the fumbling “head of state” (Peter Mackenzie) tries to assume dictatorial powers and track down this Galt fellow, the latter waits for Dagny to see the light and join him, both ideologically and romantically, and prepares to save the world with his new “motor,” a small device that will generate the power to supply nearly all the country’s needs. That’s entrepreneurship even the greenest lefties could get behind.
The climax of the novel — and, arguably, of Rand’s philosophical and writing career — consists of Galt’s address to a despairing nation after he’s commandeered the airwaves from the head of state. In the book, this talk consumes 56 small-type pages, so what appears onscreen in video form is inevitably a very brief condensation of Rand’s manifesto. But it does rally people on the street, not to mention Ron Paul, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, who appear in faux broadcast reactions to endorse Galt’s philosophy.
Some subsequent torture of the revolutionary by government goons — Galt is conspicuously placed in crucifixion position — looks both silly and unconvincing, as does his escape with Dagny into the night.
And so, after a very brief theatrical run, this Atlas Shrugged will shuffle off into the sunset as well, as a missed opportunity to speak to anyone other than the converted, but at least as the culmination of its makers’ will.
Production: Atlas Productions
Cast: Kristoffer Polaha, Laura Regan, Greg Germann, Eric Allan Kramer, Tony Denison, Mark Moses, Lew Temple, Stephen Tobolowsky, Peter Mackenzie, Larry Cedar, Louis Herthum, Rob Morrow, Joaquin de Almeida
Director: J. James Manera
Screenwriters: J. James Manera, Harmon Kaslow, John Aglialoro, based on the novel by Ayn Rand
Producers: Harmon Kaslow, John Aglialoro
Executive producer: William A. Dunn
Director of photography: Gale Tattersall
Production designer: Jack G. Taylor
Costume designer: Erica Edell Phillips
Editor: Tony Ciccone
Music: Elia Crimal
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes
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