David R. Henderson  

Atlas Shrugged--And I Didn't

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My title is a takeoff on the title of P.J. O'Rourke's panning of the movie Atlas Shrugged. He obviously didn't like it and, with an eye for detail, noticed the strange world in which cell phones exist but oil pipelines don't. I can add my own criticisms--about a confusion between the price of steel and the price premium on steel and Dagny losing all her bargaining power with Rearden by telling him how few alternatives she has. But one thing I learned or, at least, had reinforced, early in my intellectual life--from Ayn Rand, actually--was not to be bound by concretes but, instead to pay attention to the big picture. And my big-picture view is that on a scale of 1 to 10, Atlas Shrugged is at least a 7. Per dollar spent on the movie, I'd give it a 10. It's amazing how good a movie they made with only about $10 million. Unlike P.J., I didn't find the acting stilted. Hank Rearden was stilted, but that was in character--that's how he appeared in the novel. Eddie Willers was a lot stronger a character than I expected--but I liked him. And Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart was--how shall I say this tastefully--very appealing. I loved the "significant looks"--I think in her novel, Ayn Rand called them "silent salutes"--she and Rearden gave each other. The building sexual tension between Dagny and Hank as the movie progressed was delicious. The only guy who I thought was totally miscast was Hugh Akston. He needed to be at least 10 years older and distinguished looking with a nice head of gray hair. The countercultural hippy look didn't work.

Also, I had feared that, as in 1950 movie, The Fountainhead, there would be too many long speeches. There weren't. There were attempts to get the philosophy across, mainly successfully, but these were with one- or two-liners. And the villains were realistic hypocrites. We would see them scheming to take advantage of the interventionist state while spouting all the standard lines about compassion.

My own favorite, though, was Rearden Metal. The bracelet that Rearden gave his wife from the first pouring of the metal was similar to how I had pictured it. And the rail itself was so similar--especially its color--to how I had pictured it. My favorite segment in the novel was the maiden voyage on the John Galt Line. No movie, I think, could do justice to the passion of that segment and this one didn't. But it did pretty well. And the shimmering metal and the way the train snaked around the foothills and crossed the bridge were beautiful.

The ending shocked me--coming after only about 90 minutes and containing a reaction from Dagny that I don't remember from the book. But it worked. The movie theater in Monterey in which I saw it--which contained only about 40 seats--was only 2/3 full but over half of those people lingered for the credits. Some conversations got going too. I heard people say, "What happens next?" and "I can't wait for Part 2." An older man and his wife came up to me in the dark while the credits were rolling and asked me if he should read the book. I don't know how he chose me. Maybe it was because at various points in the movie, he heard me laugh at some of the villains. I told him that if he liked the movie, he would like the book and, to give it some perspective, the book had changed my life. "I'm an economics professor," I said, "and there's a good chance that, had I not read Atlas Shrugged, I wouldn't be."


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
tim writes:

The characters in the movie version are flat and two dimensional because the characters in the books are flat and two dimensional. So you can say the movie at least is faithful to the source material.

But saying that you have to ask yourself will this movie create any converts? It's a fanboy movie made for fanboys. Based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends who have seen it - half of them were disappointed in the movie while the rest gave it average to good reviews. The answer is clearly no And since the movie won't even begin to make it's money back - there will be no continuation of the story on the big screen.

As someone who leans heavily libertarian I'm going after a degree in economics not because of Ayn Rand but despite her and her cult.

David R. Henderson writes:

@tim,
What I have is a small sample, of course, but that conversation with that older couple is slight evidence against your claim about converts. "Slight" because who knows what they'll think when they read the book; "evidence" because the book did draw them to the movie.
Where are you going after your degree?

Steve Sailer writes:

I've never read the book, but I quite enjoyed the movie. Here's my review in Taki's Magazine:

http://takimag.com/article/atlas_shrugged_a_hymn_to_the_overdog/print

paul gregory writes:

David:

I have yet to view Atlas Shrugged. I am pleased you gave it a good review. My good friend, a devotee of Ayn Rand, gave it a 10. I have noted the conspicuous silence from the main stream except a pan from Maureen Dowd. The main stream cannot wait to write it off. Reviews like yours will cause thinking people to give it a chance.

Karen Selick writes:

David, the movie hasn't come to Canada yet but I'm looking forward to it. Thanks for the review.

Her name is spelled Dagny, by the way, not Dagne.

And I think you would have become an economist no matter what.

Carlos Iglesias writes:

Great review David. Though initially excited about seeing the movies, some mixed reviews (in line with Tim's comments above) from my "Randian" friends had tempered that. However, if you like it'd it and I because of our similar "fanboy" tastes, I'll try to catch it this coming weekend.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks Steve, Paul, Karen, and Carlos. Karen, good catch. I've made the correction. Karen, hard to know what I would have become. I was a small-time arbitrageur from an early age. And I was fascinated by airplanes. Who knows? But I bet you're right that the odds-on favorite was my becoming an economist.
By the way, not only "fanboys" but also "fangirls" will, I predict, enjoy the movie.

tms writes:

I had mixed feelings. As one reviewer said, it was flawed but "strangely satisfying".

Hunter writes:

The thing that bothered me in the movie was the feeling that only the people at the top were productive. Yes entrepreneurs are important but so are the private sector equivalents of the non-com officers and yes even the lowliest of janitors can be among the producers.

Thank you for the very nice review. I compare and contrast this movie first with Ayn Rand's own screenplay for The Fountainhead. Her changes then for the translation across media were similar to those made for this movie. They were right and smart. I also look to the many remakes of Pride and Prejudice. Every generation envisions it anew. "Faithful" productions or reproductions may be epistemologically impossible, even if you get the carriages and gowns right. So, too, with Atlas Shrugged. We are 50 fast paced years removed from the final product and 100 from the author's social context. This movie must be about us here and now, even if it were realistically set in 1957 - or imaginatively set in 2057.

I have read many reviews - even added my own comments. Yours is the best summary so far.

Jeff Kirby writes:

Prof Henderson,

I was glad to see that you enjoyed the Atlas Shrugged movie. Unfortunately, I can't say that I've seen it. It had a very limited run in the DC area and time ran out on me before I could get away to see it myself. I feel like I failed it by not adding my movie going dollars to the take in order to help its success for Parts 2 & 3 to be made. Like you, though, the book was an important read in my life and I am amazed at the daily reflections of current events to the core issues of societal problems portrayed in the story. Even today, I used AS as a comparitive point in a discussion about the government interferrence in the Boeing factory issue in S. Carolina. I've also give AS as a gift to the occasional close friend or co-worker, trying to spread the wisdom I found in it.
Hope all is well in Monterey!

joecushing writes:

The book is avalible on audible.com. it's about 60 hrs. That's 12 weeks of 30 minute commutes. That's how I got through it.

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