Fictitious Reviews

Note to readers. This 'review' of the movie Atlas Shrugged was written in 2008 and initially posted in early 2009, at which time there was no movie of the novel. That's why it's a fictitious review. As it turns out, a movie of Atlas Shrugged was made in summer of 2010 and released in April 2011. It covered only the first part of the novel. Part 2 was released in October 2012 as Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike. There are plans to have a Part 3, to complete the novel. The first two parts were widely panned and received low viewer ratings on A principal complaint was the low budget for the movies and the acting. Also, actors changed for the main parts between the two movies, destroying continuity if you ever watched both parts together. In any case, the background information in this review -- about why it has taken decades to make any movie of the novel -- remains accurate and relevant. It is interesting that the real movies have some of the same features that I 'predicted' in this fictitous review, including relatively unknown actors and the need for a 6 hour film to do the story justice.

Movie Review - Written for the New York Times


Atlas Shrugged

4 hours 10 minutes

Produced and Directed by Michael Uhlm

Based on Novel by Ayn Rand

       Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged came out in 1957, to wide acclaim. Her previous major novel, The Fountainhead, was published in 1943 and made into a popular movie starring Gary Cooper (1946). Rand wrote that screenplay, so she surely had a sense of what works in Hollywood.

      Atlas Shrugged has never gone out of print. By some accounts it is the second most widely read book on college campuses, after the Bible. The story is part fantasy, part science fiction, part gripping drama and, perhaps above all, a philosophical treatise (more about that later). Rand was never popular with literary critics, who largely disdained her work with words that always seemed to start with a ‘p’: polemical, pretentious, preposterous, political, puerile.

      Like all good writers (and Rand was a good writer, just not a literary one) she ignored her critics and wrote for the ages. The background society in Atlas Shrugged is a deteriorating industrial infrastructure, with the story being told from the standpoint of the railroad industry. The biggest railroad corporation is run by the Taggerts. Jim, the president, is an idiot; he is running the railroad into the ground. Fighting him, and trying to save the railroad is his beautiful sister, Dagny, a savvy but vulnerable woman who is cast in the mold of Fountainhead’s Dominique Fancon.

      Rand’s genius lay in blending some heavy philosophical ideas into a mega novel with all the trappings of Hollywood: a strong-willed heroine and several heroes; bad guys that will make your skin curl; epic scenery; a train disaster of whopping proportion; and a tense, last-minute rescue of the man-who-would-save-the-world.

      So why, one might ask, has there never been -- until now -- an Atlas movie? Why indeed, in the era of big and successful movies about other long and “difficult” novels, notably The English Patient and Howard’s End?

      Ayn Rand was no mere novelist, but a popular philosopher, with a large -- some would say cult-like -- following. After her death in 1982 the Ayn Rand Institute was established in California to continue and proselytize her ideas. Problem is, different people interpret her ideas - and thus her legacy - in different ways. In recent years the AR Institute has been roiled by charges and counter-charges among its board members, so that, although several people claim to speak for her work, no one is an acknowledged spokesperson


* * *

       An expatriate from Soviet Russia in the 1920's, Rand was profoundly anti-communist, and pro-laissez faire capitalism. First through her novels, then through non-fiction books and newsletters, she popularized an epistemology, or set of ideas, called Objectivism. Don’t ask what it is -- you’re suppose to know objectivism when you come across it. Anyway, her heroic characters speak and live by the capitalist/objectivist credo, which includes the oft-repeated oath that none of them will ever live for another man (person), or ask another man (person) to live for him (her).

       Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders espouse a form of altruism that is not all that different from what you would expect from any card-carrying socialist -- and as direct result, are (literally) turning the country to ruin.

      Both before and after Rand died, the word is that Hollywood producers (meaning those with access to big bucks and distribution channels) felt her hard core, capitalism-is-good-altruism-is-bad mantra would not sell, at least not enough to recoup production and marketing expenses. But wait a minute! Changing an author’s story/slant/ meaning has never stopped Hollywood before. Why not just tone down the rhetoric a tad, make the characters a little more believable, and emphasize the book’s happy ending? After all, if Gary Cooper can deliver a condensed version of Howard Roark’s trial speech in The Fountainhead, why couldn’t Tom Hanks, say, read John Galt’s famous radio speech (OK, not a full hour, but five or 10 minutes - you know, the really good parts about how the country got so screwed up)?

      The answer is that Rand, and then her followers, would not budge on one crucial point: control. For over 40 years the Rand camp stead-fastly refused to allow any movie of the book without the right to kill it. They simply would not let the work be sullied by a faithless rendition. This is not as arrogant as it may sound. Several famous authors have resisted the siren song of Hollywood because they simply don’t trust the place to do a decent job on their books -- Isaac Asimov and Clive Cussler come most readily to mind.

       After all, Jim Taggert is more than just an incompetent businessman; he is the embodiment of evil in the guise of a do-gooder, the kind of altruistic do-gooder turning the USA into a Soviet Union of the 1920s. And John Galt (the novel’s main hero) is more than just a genius-cum-day laborer; he is the embodiment of all that is holy in the name of objectivism, the only person, really, who can save that same USA. If Mr. Hollywood (or any other) movie producer could not guarantee faithful conveyance of these images and the relevant philosophy, well - hasta la vista. So no movie.

      Until Mike Uhlm came along. New to Hollywood, Uhlm as a producer has just two previous credits, one of which happens to be an HBO production of Rand’s only play, Night of January 16th. While January 16th was a modest commercial success, it was a fantastic success with the audience that counts -- the contentious AR Institute Board of Directors. They apparently put aside petty (how dare me!) arguments long enough to invite Uhlm to submit a treatment outline for Atlas.

      He did, and they liked it. They also liked the idea that he would produce and direct the epic, and that he felt confident the end product would pass muster (after all, he is an individual, not a committee). But where would Uhlm get investors for such a movie - knowing it could be killed by a bunch of people who couldn’t even agree on what Rand meant in her writings? Good question. I don’t have the answer, but rumor has it that a couple of big pocket libertarians got in on the ground floor (yes, aficianados, I know Rand eschewed libertarianism as a movement, but a lot of them identify with her anyway).

      Whatever the birth process, we now have the finished product, opening on area screens this week. And the really important question for Hollywood is: Can a neophyte producer make a successful movie of a novel, spanning 1100 pages, about railroads in the 1950s? And when virtually every actor is unknown to a general audience?

      A recurring question asked by characters in Atlas is, “Who is John Galt?” (The hero is something of an enigma until about half way through the book). But I have another question. Who are Howard Siminik, Leona Butler and Jason Derek-Smith? Never heard of them? They play Hank Reardon, Dagny Taggert and John Galt in the movie respectively, the three main leads. And they are all new to this reviewer.


* * *

       This is a big budget movie, but money was not thrown at stars. No Tom Hanks, that’s for sure. Uhlm chose unknowns to economize, but he chose them wisely, figuring that the name Rand and Atlas Shrugged will bring people to the theater. And Atlas will surely make these unknowns into stars. What Uhlm has wrought is a pre-modern epic that manages to get across Rand’s unyielding philosophy while enthralling us in the process, and showing us fresh new faces. You will particularly like Ernesto Bolivar, who plays the dashing Latin playboy.

      This movie is a delight at every level, from its intricate plot to its science fiction-type scenes to its stunning photography to - yes - its exposition of economic philosophy.

      But if economics and philosophy bore you, go see Atlas for the scenery: of New York City circa 1955; of trains before planes took away their passengers; of the timeless Colorado Rockies.

      And if philosophy and scenery are not sufficient, well go see it for the action. I mentioned that Rand knew Hollywood, and Uhlm takes advantage of her action scenes. The train disaster is played out the way it is written: detail by detail, excruciating minute by excruciating minute. The rescue at the end of the movie is never in doubt, but the way it is handled cinematically will please even hard core action folks.

      But a fair warning. To enjoy Atlas you must accept a 1950s different than what you might remember or know about. While the scenes are authentic - for example, Dagny and Rearden roam the midwest in search of ruined factories riding an old Studebaker; every stop is an evocation of that first post-war decade - the country is seen sliding into a vicious kind of socialism that does not ring true. Instead of entering into the highly prosperous post-war expansion that really took place, Rand has the country reversing course into a quagmire of failed plants, lost jobs, and despair.

      People who know nothing about the novel or its purpose may rebel about the historical portrayal of the era. Eisenhower is replaced by a committee whose leader, Mr. Thompson, is about as appealing as Stalin.

      But this should not matter. Accept the political background as fictional license, and you’ll do fine. Then you’ll also accept that the only hope for survival lay in the radical ideas of one day laborer (John Galt) and his followers -- who are desperately trying to save the country (and the world) by disappearing.

      If you read the book you know what happens, but if you’ve never even heard of Ayn Rand, you will still enjoy this movie. It is long at 4 hours but, paradoxically, not long enough. Six hours would be better. You need the intermission to go to the bathroom, but you would also like to sit through undisturbed, if you could.

      In the end you care about Dagny Taggert and Hank Rearden and their band destined to save the world from incompetent do-gooders. And when you care about the characters, you know the film is a good one. Ayn Rand would be proud. For once, the Rand Institute Board has something on which to agree.

      Expect to see some new faces at next year’s Academy Awards.


Reviewed by Brad Sobilof

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