by Christian Toto, special to Donne Tempo Magazine
DENVER, April 15, 2011 – Devotees of author Ayn Rand finally get to hear the question, “Who is John Galt?” at their local movieplex.
That fact alone should be considered a milestone of sorts. The film adaptation of Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” has been in the works for decades, and injecting Rand’s free market ideology into today’s left-leaning film industry is a heady achievement.
How often will you see corporate types as the heroes, not the hiss-inducing villains?
The bigger question is if fans of Rand’s 1957 novel will tolerate a deeply flawed screen adaptation, the first of a proposed trilogy meant to capture the book’s voluminous length.
The year is 2016, and many of the problems currently facing the U.S. have gotten much worse. Oil prices are spiking, the Middle East is aflame and the economy remains in shambles. The railroad industry suddenly looms as a cost-effective alternative to the nation’s travel woes.
Taggart Transcontinental could take advantage of that market place reality if antiquated machinery didn’t keep derailing its prospects.
Enter Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), the company’s co-owner who takes bold actions to revitalize their brand. She decides to buy a new, untested metal alloy from a similarly driven executive named Hank Reardon (Grant Bowler). Dagny’s brother (Matthew Marsden) would rather play it safe, bowing and scraping to the government’s growing nest of regulations designed to level the playing field.
Meanwhile, a shadowy figure is seen approaching notable businessmen and profiteers alike with the single, unanswered question, “Who is John Galt?”
“Atlas Shrugged” moves the time frame up more than 50 years from the source material, but the essentials remain firmly in place. Dagny is a force of nature, a driven capitalist who sees government intervention as bad both for her business and the country at large. When she strikes a deal to buy Reardon’s alloy it’s a thumb in the eye to a government which thinks being “fair” is the prime directive.
The film deserves some slack given its humble origins, including a modest budget and rumors of an industry less than eager to support it. But many indie filmmakers thrive under similar constraints, making the movie’s stiff acting and oft-tortured dialogue impossible to explain away.
Marsden’s wooden performance is the biggest offender here, but he’s often paired with cagey character actors Michael Lerner and Jon Polito who save him from damaging the production.
The growing sexual chemistry between Dagny and Hank offers a respite from the wonky scenarios, and while Schilling’s performance is far from great it’s the best selling point for non-Randians.
What’s most compelling about “Atlas Shrugged” is how it brings an ideological perspective to the movies that’s all but absent in today’s Hollywood. It celebrates risk and reward and the entrepreneurs who make this country not only great but a place where dreams, as hokey as it sounds, can come true.
If those traits can paper over the film’s obvious flaws then audiences may get to find out the identity of Mr. Galt at long last.
Christian Toto is a veteran journalist and film critic whose work appears in The Denver Post,The Washington Times and PajamasMedia.com. His movie reviews are heard on WTOP radioand “The Dennis Miller Show,” and he blogs on film at What Would Toto Watch? Read more of Christian’s work at Movies in Toto in the Communities at the Washington Times.