Please Re-cut This Film! An appeal for Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt? (Part One)

imageI don’t want to write this review, but, dammit, I feel obligated.

Actually, I feel torn. One the one hand, I supported this movie financially via Kickstarter. I think very well of the producers and creative team who have, thus far, brought us one excellent film and one pretty good one in this trilogy. Criticizing them in public feels a bit like airing dirty laundry, disloyalty to the cause. And yet… When I see something done poorly, by people who want to do a good job, and I know how it could be done better… I feel like I have to say something. Even though saying something seems to put me in the ranks of the many film critics who will say this movie is a desperate, laughable attempt to bring recognition to a set of lunatic fringe ideas, and that the poor quality of the film is just a testament to how unsound their thinking is.

Well, I’m not in that camp. I have no scientific evidence, but I would hazard a guess that 100% of the “film critics” who have published reviews of any of the Atlas Shrugged films wrote their reviews in their heads before seeing the film. Pardon my generalizations, but film critics, and mass media employees in general, tend to be aligned with the political Left. Most of them are so aligned with it that they don’t even realize they have a bias. They think, after all, just like all the other right-thinking people do. Isn’t everyone a liberal? I mean, everyone who isn’t stupid or evil? The disease is so far gone in some people that one of my sons had a history teacher who told the class that to be “conservative” is to be far-Right, to be “liberal” is to be at the center of the spectrum, and to be “radical” is “a bit to the left.” Apparently the far left is somewhere on down the evolutionary path from where we are now.

I’ve read nothing in any published review to suggest that I’m wrong. It’s pretty clear that reviewers hated this movie before they bought their popcorn. Audiences, on the other hand, gave pretty high marks to Atlas Shrugged parts One and Two. You could argue that that’s because only Ayn Rand fans (sometimes called “Randroids” by their detractors) went to see the film, and they loved it before they bought their popcorn. And, even if they hated it, they wouldn’t tell anyone.

Well, I’m not a liberal film critic. I’m not a Randroid. I’m a reader who thinks Ayn Rand’s work has literary and philosophical merit, and a movie-goer who loved the first entry in this trilogy, was a little disappointed with the second, but liked it better each time I watched it, and wanted to love the third. Indeed, I expected to love the third, because the team had proven they knew how to make movies, and this was the big, dramatic, finish. It’s a story I’ve read many times, and I know that it has lots of heart and power.

But… Sadly… I cannot call this a successful film.

Let’s just take this from the top:

The film is over-narrated. Right from the beginning, it feels like a documentary, more than a dramatic presentation. Its predecessors had a couple of moments of info dump, but they were mostly accomplished by slides of written background information. There were the occasional news broadcasts, yes, but they were integrated into the story. In what was once called Atlas Shrugged Part III, you jump back and forth between dramatization and documentary, harshly voiced and blaring.

And what you jump back and forth from… oh, dear. If you’ve read Atlas Shrugged, you probably have your own conception of what Atlantis, or “Galt’s Gulch,” the secret paradise nestled in the Rockies, must look like. (Point of irony – while the message board I belong to as a member of the “Producers” of this film is called “Galt’s Gulch,” the name is not given prominence in the film. I don’t believe it’s used at all.) You might think this place would be hard to capture on film. You probably never thought it would look and sound like a Hallmark special. But it does, in this film. Right down to the dark-haired, hunky boy-next-door who goes by the name of John Galt, who wears flannel all the time and lives in a log cabin.

Jarring again, as it was in the second film, is the complete change of cast. These movies are being made in such short production windows, and on such a low budget, that it’s simply not possible for producers to sign actors to a three-picture deal. Still, you’d think some of the actors would be available more than once. But, as in the first film, the director uses a visual cue to at least identify the lead. Lead Dagny Taggart was played (brilliantly) by Taylor Schilling in Part One. In Part Two, Schilling is replaced by Samantha Mathis. In order to smooth the transition, the first glimpse we have of Dagny includes her wrist, and the heavy Reardon Metal bracelet that was a plot point in the first film. Our first glimpse of Laura Regan includes the same bracelet, allowing the viewer to say, “Okay, that must be Dagny, because she’s wearing Dagny’s bracelet.” It’s a good trick, anyway.

I won’t argue with the casting much. I think it’s a little childish to argue casting choices. I will note that Joaquim de Almeida is a fine actor, but, at almost sixty, far too old to be believable as a childhood playmate or college buddy of not-yet-forty-year-olds Regan and Kristoffer Polaha. Eric Allan Kramer doesn’t look like the literary portrait Rand drew of pirate Ragnar Danneskj√∂ld, but doesn’t get enough screen time to show he is or isn’t fit for the part. And, speaking of screen time, a lot of fans were unhappy about the casting of Rob Morrow as Hank Reardon. But, since he appears only in still shots and one murky scene at the end of the film, no one knows if he was up to the role except, perhaps, the cast and crew themselves.

On the other hand, Greg Germann, with Morrow one of the two highest profile actors in the film, is the finest choice imaginable for James Taggart. Germann was born to play an Ayn Rand villain, with his ever-bashful expression, and his ability to evoke a sense of being up to no good and not wanting to be noticed, of simultaneous vulnerability and envious need.

Elia Cmiral, who composed the wonderful score to the first part of the trilogy, returns for this film. Unfortunately, while his music is still as beautiful and stirring, the timing of it is off. In the Atlantis scenes, especially as Dagny is being rescued after a plane crash, the music overwhelms the action, and made me feel as if I were being hit over the head by someone shouting, “Isn’t this a beautiful score?”

As Dagny discovers that Atlantis is a community of successful people who are “on strike” against the moochers and the influence peddlers who would steal the fruits of their minds and sell them to the highest bidder, all in the name of universal brotherhood, my writer’s instincts began to kick in. The opening scenes are preachy and didactic. Basically, Dagny meets a series of people who walk up, shake her hand, and then, in one or two sentences, tell her how the government screwed them. I kept thinking, “But this was done so much more elegantly in the novel, and could have been condensed just as elegantly for the screen.” Even when you agree with the argument being made (and I do), it’s hard to listen to it being presented badly. It’s a bit like being an enlightened Christian, sitting and listening to a not-very-bright amateur evangelist, mouthing rehearsed words about “letting Jesus in your heart,” without actually understanding the implications of what he’s saying. You understand and even endorse the message. You just wish this guy weren’t presenting it. It’s embarrassing.

One of the biggest problems with this film is Dagny’s lack of power as a character. She has a lot stacked against her. Dagny, in the book, is at her most vulnerable during this part of the story. She’s been in a plane crash. She’s a beggar dependent on charity, because she has no money in Atlantis. She’s caught off guard by her love for a man she thought she hated. Not a position of power. Add to that that the actress does not have access to the audience’s memories of her playing the much-more-powerful Dagny of the two previous films, and this one is a pretty hard row to hoe. But it’s a screenwriter’s job to establish a character’s credibility very quickly. You have sixty seconds or so to make the audience bond with your lead. You have to make her funny, competent or sympathetic. Sympathetic was the way to go here, but… it really wasn’t established all that clearly. The script was too concerned with documentary and showing us up front the history of John Galt.

So when Dagny volunteers to be a maid to Galt, in order to earn her keep, it doesn’t feel like it does in the book. In the book, you realize the gesture is just one more example of what a strong woman this is. She’ll do menial labor in order to continue being a productive, free person who pays her own way. Honor and self-ownership are more important to her than status, which is the hallmark of a Rand hero or heroine. Villains want status. Heroes want to live on their own terms. But the scene comes off in this film as kind of desperate. Sort of like, Boy-Next-Door Galt is just so damned cute that she’ll do anything just to be near him.

Similarly, when Dagny is back in the “real world” and reclaiming her status as America’s number one troubleshooter by solving a railroad traffic crisis, the moment is blown. The stirring speech she starts to give her employees is interrupted because she spots John Galt in her audience, and his bedroom eyes force her to run into a subway tunnel and have sex in a utility room. My sons both squirmed during this scene. I thought it might just be the “watching sex on the screen next to my parents” factor. But they told me later it was because the love scene played like a Dove Chocolate commercial, and was so ill-placed.

To be fair, Rand wrote the interrupted speech, but it wasn’t interrupted for a trite romance novel extract. Dagny and Galt’s first meeting in the outside world was actually an insightful conversation about their growing feelings for each other, and how they related to her long-standing relationship with Hank Reardon.

But these are the obvious points, the things you notice on casual viewing. There are also huge thematic issues, which cause me to say that the heart of Book 3 of Atlas Shrugged is missing from this film, cause me to say it should be re-cut for posterity… And which, at almost 1900 words, I think I’ll address next week.

One thought on “Please Re-cut This Film! An appeal for Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt? (Part One)

  1. You clarified a lot of nagging things for me here, things I noticed but couldn’t elucidate properly until you read it. Yes, I wanted to like this film and did like the two predecessors, yes, the Gult’s Gulch scenes were a low point and jarring, and the reasons you gave brought it together for me (why I didn’t like it). Yes, the narrative was strange. I do want to know what happened to this film, and I hope we find out.

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