Atlas Shrugged Part 1 and human nature. With the threatened second version of Atlas Shrugged beginning production, I finally got around to slogging my way through the first part of this epic work in progress, which is now available as a streaming option over at Netflix. I can see quite clearly why the movie failed at the box office. It's hardly the fault of the director or the actors or production values. While obviously not a big budget effort, no amount of money or high-end production values could have salvaged this turkey. Nor would better direction or better acting make a jot of difference. The movie fails because its characters, particularly the protagonists, are grossly unrealistic; and they are unrealistic because Rand's novel demonstrates a complete cluelessness about human nature. Human beings simply don't talk or behave like they are shown talking and behaving in this movie. People can tolerate a very wide degree of fantasy and irrealism in a movie; but they can't tolerate behavior that doesn't jive with their sense of human nature. The situations may be as unrealistic as one likes; but if human beings do not behave as human beings, the movie will come off as bewildering and senseless.
Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 actually starts off somewhat promising. Using news reports compiled in clever editing, we get an exposition of a world heading toward bankruptcy and anarchy. The attempt to justify the re-emergence of railroads in 2016 as a consequence of high gas prices may be a bit over the top, but then, if the movie had been graced by realistic human beings, this would not have mattered. The first hint that the movie will quickly go off the rails comes when we hear the novel's signature line, spoken by a tramp in a diner, "Who is John Galt." This catch phrase never really convinces in the novel, and in the movie it immediately strikes a note of absurdity. This is followed by an even more preposterous scene involving a shadowy John Galt, dressed in hat and trench coat. He utters some Randian boilerplate to Midas Mulligan, after which we are told that Mulligan has subsequently disappeared without a trace.
Unrealistic situations in fiction or a movie only work if they stem from realistic motivations. The motivations in Atlas Shrugged are not realistic: they arise, not from any recognizable psychology, but merely from abstract theories. Rand imagined that human beings were made like characters in philosophical novels, i.e., that they were manifestations of their abstract premises. Real people aren't like that. They have various needs, desires, sentiments, some of which have innate sources. In particular, ambitious people, whether they are industrialists, high-level bureaucrats, or lobbyists, are animated by a desire for status. They are engaged in a struggle for pre-eminence. Such individuals would not give up everything they owned and had worked for all their adult lives to go reside in some remote trench in Colorado. Consequently, the scenes involving Galt are the worst and most far-fetched in the movie. The most absurd of these scenes is the final one, when John Galt convinces Ellis Wyatt to destroy his oil business and vanish into the inhospitable Colorado Rockies. Real people don't behave that way. They have emotional ties to their friends and family and to their possessions. They don't just throw everything overboard because some shadowy figure in a trechcoat tells them about a place where they get to keep all they earn. A real oil titan, if confronted by Galt's ideological patter, would conclude either that Galt was a madman spouting nonsense or a grifter weaving tall tales. In real life, Galt would be shown the door, perhaps by a butler or a security guard.
But in real life, most of the things that happen in the movie version of Atlas Shrugged (as well as the book) would not happen at all. Rand's entire world rests on a false premise: the view that evil is stupid and incompetent, whereas good is enterprising and brilliant. The deck is stacked against Rand's villians from the very beginning, the final outcome decided well in advance. Yet in the real world the Jim Taggarts and the Wesley Mouches are not so incompetent and pathetic (after all, as Whitaker Chambers noted, how could such pathetic incompetence become powerful enough to feared and loathed in the first place?), nor are the Hank Reardens and the Dagny Taggerts so pure of heart. If you examine most of the great capitalists and entrepeuners, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who did not attempt to curry favor with the government, whether it was for tariff protection or land subsidies or special contracts. Business people who have scruples about using government for their own advantage simply get out-competed by those lacking such scruples. The real world, in short, is a far messier, morally ambiguous place than we find it portrayed in the Atlas movie. The air of unreality, coupled with all the blatant propaganda, is likely what turned the movie-going public away from it.
The best scenes in the movie are those involving the villians. At its most absurd, the left provides ripe targets for caricature and satire. But even here, the movie is only partially successful. Since none of these villians is more than a carricature, they can only be effective in small doses. If they were given as much screen time as the heroes, their lack of reality would become more noticeable, and their role as vehicles for propaganda would become increasingly annoying. The problem with propagandistic narratives is that they are way too condescending: they assume that their audience is too lazy or too stupid to accept a sermon without a story; but in their zeal to propagate the message, they prostitute both the story and the story's characters. Atlas Shrugged is all about the message. But even this message has problems. It's not so much wrong as it is way too simplistic. The world is not so easily divided between looters and producers. These functions are often inextricably mixed in the same person. Worse, the government is both the means by which looting is promoted and by which it is limited and regulated. Attempting to score points against Big Government and left-wing economic ideology with a simplistic narrative about looters verses producers is bound to convince no one not already on board. People tend to be skeptical of manipulative propaganda fiction; and it's difficult to believe that anyone skeptical of free enterprise will change their mind after viewing Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.
The second part of Atlas Shrugged will have new cast, new director, and a new script. Will that make it any better? No, of course not. It will only confuse those handful of brave souls who attempt to watch the two movies as a series. The problem with the first version is not the acting (which is entirely competent) nor even the direction (despite some pacing problems). The problem is the book itself and the motiveless ideological automatons that populate it.