“There were a few rare men of talent around her, but they were becoming rarer every year,” it is lamented about the circle surrounding Ayn Rand‘s ultra-capable heroine Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged, and the complaint certainly applies in the case of this botched partial screen adaptation of the mammoth novel that has materialized 54 years after the book’s publication. Although the recent surge in annual sales of the revered and despised author’s fictional manifesto arguably testifies to its continuing relevance, the central battle between fearsomely independent corporate mavericks and hostile big government has been updated in a half-baked, unconvincing way that’s exacerbated by button-pushing TV-style direction, threadbare production values and blah performances except for that of Taylor Schilling in the central role. Set to bow in roughly 200 theaters on April 15, this independently financed-and-distributed rendition of the book’s first third is unlikely to generate sufficient box office to inspire production of the final two installments (the 1,000-plus-page novel is divided into three sections of 10 chapters apiece), although the producers could conceivably forge ahead anyway if their pockets are deep enough. A TV miniseries with a high-powered cast–several were planned at various points over the past four decades–would have been a preferable way to go with this didactic, sometimes risible but still powerful material.
Published in 1957, Rand’s summation novel continues to compel and repel; designed as a paean and exhortation to fulfillment of personal excellence and unrestrained industrial productivity, it is also seen as an abject endorsement of wanton selfishness and the right of the capable few to lord it over the parasitical many. Especially as former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had been an ardent Randian, it’s recently become easier than ever to blame contemporary economic ills on the fallout from her unregulated philosophy, even if the fiscal blundering of many governments provides equally persuasive arguments on the other side.
These philosophical debates can and will go on forever, but screenwriters Brian Patrick O’Toole and John Aglialoro (also a producer) have themselves bungled in their attempt to remain faithful to the letter of the sacred text while moving the action to the near-future (specifically, 2016). Many scenes are devoted to dull conversations among business fatcats about the economics of railways and steel, central industries that helped drive the nation 60 years ago but seem like afterthoughts today (Amtrak, anyone?). Updating the story would provide a provocative test to any writer but could certainly be done; however, to do so without acknowledging the present-day realities of high-tech industries, outsourcing, shifting transportation modes and advanced information technology (the characters here actually read newspapers) places the action in an unrecognizable twilight zone. So does the fact that the central manufacturing triumph here is the construction of a high-speed train (managed from scratch within a few months, no less). Not only is it unremarked that Asia and Europe are decades ahead on this front, but conservatives who might be perceived as the core audience for this film are the very ones currently fighting against fast-train funding and construction in the U.S.
For these reasons alone, a serious cultural/historical disjunction derails the enterprise from the outset. Television news clips portray a nation in recognizable disarray and decay, as well as a Middle East that has imploded, triggering unimaginable oil prices, but these seem like overwhelming issues unlikely to be turned around by the efforts of the laser-focused Dagny to take over decision-making at rail giant Taggart Transcontinental from her ineffectual brother James (Matthew Marsden).
Poised, beautifully groomed and impeccably coiffed, Dagny strides through the corridors of male hesitation, indecision and ineffectuality with a fierce confidence shaken only by the inexplicable “retirement” of certain skilled executives and the baffling question she increasingly hears at unexpected moments, “Who is John Galt?” This is a query that may or may not ever be answered onscreen, depending upon whether the next two parts are made, but suffice it to say that in Part I he is a shadowy figure resembling the Humphrey Bogart character in Woody Allen‘s “Play It Again, Sam.”
Galt is impersonated here by Paul Johansson, a young actor who stepped in to direct Atlas Shrugged when the original director left shortly before shooting began. The best that can be said for his work is that it’s perfunctory, a word that also describes all the performances except that of Schilling, a blond beauty whose open face, direct gaze and plain speaking do more than anything else to make watching the film tolerable. One has little doubt that, in a more substantial version of this story, one populated by strong actors in the other principal roles, she would have held her own and moreso, justifying the casting of a relative unknown in the most important part.
Although ostensibly set in New York City, the film features various buildings and cityscapes recognizable from Los Angeles and Chicago.
Opens: April 15 (Strike Prods. Release)
Production: Harmon Kaslow, John Aglialoro Prods.
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Edi Gathegi, Grahame Beckel, Jsu Garcia, Jon Polito, Michael Lerner, Rebecca Wisocky, Neill Barry
Director: Paul Johansson
Screenwriters: Brian Patrick O’Toole, John Aglialoro