20 April 2011

Addendum to Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged Part 1

Having seen Atlas Shrugged Part 1 for a second time, I have a few more comments to add to my original review.

I still think Francisco’s character is totally wrong—too slouchy to convince me that there’s a vibrant, burning intelligence hiding behind the playboy façade—but I didn’t find him quite as objectionable as I did on the first viewing. (Maybe Jsu Garcia would have been better playing the part of Owen Kellogg instead of Francisco.) Dr. Akston’s character, on the other hand, seemed even worse than my original dismal estimation, exhibiting not only an inexplicable rudeness and hostility to Dagny but a manner that is fundamentally irrational and mystical. Even his clothing—a white, loose shirt and trousers—suggested this; I don’t remember if they showed his feet, but it would have been fitting for him to be as barefoot as a Buddhist ascetic. The character is more suited to shack up with Ivy Starnes than to roam the halls of Patrick Henry University.

The music, which I originally called only “sufficient,” actually rose substantially in my opinion, now that I paid a little more attention to it. I think it contributes to the drama more than I previously gave it credit for—especially now that I marked so many more failings in the script.

Ah, the script. The script is considerably worse than I first noticed, and in particular, the dialogue is atrocious. During my first viewing, while soaking up the visual presentation, I think I was “filling in the blanks” quite a lot, subconsciously supplementing an impoverished script because I know the novel so well. This time, the problems were much more apparent to me.

In some good articles I read I had come upon some criticisms of the language that gave as an example Dagny uttering, “That’s depressing.” I hadn’t remembered the dialogue being that bad, but sure enough, Dagny does indeed say, "That's depressing," . . . twice! (To my relief, Dagny and Rearden never resorted to “texting” each other, so there were no invocations of “LOL” or “OMG” in their discourse.) I cannot fathom why the filmmakers thought replacing Ayn Rand’s precise dialogue with a folksy and even ungrammatical vernacular would constitute an improvement. If they thought “people just don’t talk like that these days,” then that merely adds to the long list of reasons for them to have set the movie in the 1940’s or 1950’s. And more to the point, if “people just don’t talk like that these days,” it is because people just don’t think these days, and there is no better solution to that than to present Ayn Rand’s ideas directly. 

However well-intentioned the filmmakers may have been, dumbing down the language as they did serves no positive purpose. It simultaneously underestimates the intelligence of the average person (thus exhibiting the elitism of leftists and neo-conservatives—an elitism, by the way, that Ayn Rand never showed, contrary to accusations of such), and destroys the very substance of the material: It dilutes the meaning of ideas, reduces (or reverses) the significance of events, and perhaps above all, compromises the stature of the heroes. If the intent was to “reach” people by making the message more palatable to a public accustomed only to shades of gray, the very most that can be attained is to succeed with the “reach” at the expense of the message. It is like an art collector who, in order to display a brilliant sculptor’s masterpiece to the public, crushes it into dust so that it will fit in the box to ship to the gallery.

One final comment. I discovered something about the scriptwriters’ point of view at the end of my second viewing that is so contrary to the novel and to Ayn Rand’s philosophy that it didn’t occur to me even as a possibility after my first viewing. I could be wrong about this, but I think the final moments of the movie provide evidence for it. (I wish I had a transcript; my memory of it is not very good.) Toward the end of the film there are two voice-over sections—when John Galt addresses Ellis Wyatt and when Dagny looks out at the fire and screams—that articulate something to the effect of Atlantis being a place with little or no government for the industrialists of the world to finally go live out their lives in peace and prosperity. 

The first time I heard this I took it for an inept attempt to condense and simplify material that really ought not to be addressed until Part 3; I caught the libertarian, “small government” overtones but I was mostly appalled by the almost criminal giveaway of the story's mystery. But in my second viewing, it dawned on me that this point was presented as if it were wrapping things up. And if that is so, it struck me that the filmmakers seem to think that the Atlantis of the novel is the end goal, as opposed to a temporary haven—a paradise for producers, as opposed to a refuge from a world perishing from altruism. (Did they read all the way to the end of the book, or did they quit before Galt’s speech?) This is a grievous and unforgivable error, especially considering the mindless canard, often parroted, that Ayn Rand advocated some sort of utopian society populated solely by Nietzschean übermenschen. Hopefully, the movie will spawn enough interest in Atlas Shrugged for people to go read what Ayn Rand actually wrote.


mtnrunner2 said...

Stephen - Re: Francisco - Do you think it's the slouching? Since I read some O-reviews beforehand, I paid special attention to Francisco's face, and thought he was pretty good. I could see the holding back he was doing by putting on an act for the public, yet fighting his desire to be truthful with Dagny. However, it was difficult to see because of his hair and the high camera angle.

I agree about the script and the music.

I'm not going to pay another $10 for this, but I may stream it or buy the DVD. I'd like to revisit it later after a cooling off period.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, mtnrunner2. You have a point about Francisco's face; it's not his face that I objected to as much as his manner and demeanor.

The most telling moment for me is when Francisco approaches Rearden at the party. In this moment, Francisco is supposed to be the real Francisco, with the playboy facade set aside. His manner as he introduces himself and speaks to Rearden is, if not exactly impertinent, far too loose and lacking respect. There are too many smiles, too much joviality. This is a crucial and precious opportunity for Francisco to give Rearden "the words you need, for the time you'll need them." He should not--and in the novel, does not--put on any airs in this deadly serious moment.

Here's what Rearden was supposed to see as he looked across the table: "There was neither mockery nor self-pity in Francisco's face; the fine, sculptured planes and the clear, blue eyes held a quiet composure, the face was open, offered to any blow, unflinching." This does not describe Jsu Garcia's performance. It is true he is not "slouching" in this scene--he is hunched forward in his chair--so maybe "slouching" isn't the perfect word to describe him here. But why does he shroud his seriousness in nonchalance? Why do his eyes dart conspiratorially about the room as he speaks instead of holding Rearden's eyes unflinchingly?

I like the actor and I think he could play a heroic role. But he is not Francisco.

Lynne and I will certainly buy the DVD when it comes out. (I've read some insightful comments that suggest the movie might play considerably better in the home, precisely because it has the feel of a made-for-television movie.) The only reason we ended up seeing it in the theatre twice is that we wanted to go on opening night, and we also wanted to go on a "field trip" with Lynne's Atlas Shrugged Reading Group.