17 April 2011

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged Part 1

It could have been a lot worse.


That sentence effectively summarizes my view of the new Atlas Shrugged Part 1 movie, which Lynne and I attended on Friday night, though the appraisal probably rings a little too negative. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and contrary to my expectation, I did not spend the whole ninety minutes or so on pins and needles waiting for some outrageous corruption to emerge. (This was probably due to hearing some positive comments ahead of time from one or two of the handful of people that I would trust with such judgments.) On a scale of 0.0 to 10.0, I give the movie a score of 7.0, which is a good score indeed.


So why is my summary, “It could have been a lot worse,” instead of, say, “I liked it very much”? My praise is tempered by the failure of the film to capture even an inkling of the philosophical depth of the novel--but then again, that may be an impossibly high standard to expect in today’s culture. So, I didn’t expect it, which left me free to simply enjoy what the filmmakers did decently.



Let me start by noting some of the things that I liked.


The audio-visual presentation was very pleasing. It was a thrill to see my favorite book come to life: the cityscapes of steel and glass; the rumbling thunder of wheels on Rearden metal; the awesome span of the bridge on the John Galt Line; the dark mystery of a rain-drenched stranger emerging from the shadows to speak unexpected words. As far as I remember, the music was, if not particularly notable, at least sufficient to support the drama. And what drama! It is almost impossible for me to distance myself from the book I know so well, but I believe the filmmakers succeeded in establishing the sense of adventure and suspense . . . without resorting to a car chase!


Another thing I liked was the casting of the two main characters, Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler. Personally, I’ve always imagined Hank Rearden as being taller, more gaunt, and much more rigid--equal parts United States Marine, lumberjack, and Jesuit priest--but Mr. Bowler’s portrayal grew on me during the course of the movie. By the end, I was satisfied and convinced that he’s good for the part. (I’m not sure his stature and demeanor would have worked if the sex part had been done correctly, or if Francisco had been well cast, but more on that later.)


I liked Ms. Schilling’s Dagny very much right from the very beginning. She was smart, serious, and quite good-looking in exactly the same way that I’ve always imagined. She has really terrific legs, too, which did not fall short of my mental picture. (However shallow or superficial that observation may seem, I insist upon its importance in the character.) Lynne was a little irritated with Schilling’s manner of speech, calling her a “slow-talker,” but I was not bothered by that. I’m glad she was chosen for the part. 


Some of the villains were well cast, too. Michael Lerner plays a convincingly vile Wesley Mouch, evoking the condescending malice of Ted Kennedy or Barney Frank. I also liked Patrick Fischler's performance as Paul Larkin. Fischler delivers one of the most memorable lines of the film, provoking laughter from the audience. Rearden: “I am out just to make money.” Larkin, with a wry smile: “But you’re not supposed to say it.” 



Now let me mention a few of the problems I saw with the film.

As much as I was pleased with the casting of Hank and Dagny, I was dismayed by the selection (or at least, the direction) of Jsu Garcia and Micheal O’Keefe as Francisco D’Anconia and Hugh Akston, respectively. I am not blaming the actors necessarily; perhaps they were directed to execute their roles as they did. O’Keefe appeared only briefly, but to me his Dr. Akston seemed more like a man that might be a mediocre teacher of beat literature than a man who was once a great professor of rational philosophy. The mystery he was supposed to develop during his on-screen moment was obliterated by his inexplicable rudeness to Dagny. I could not square this portrayal with my image of the competent, respectful professor from the Patrick Henry University, the father figure of three heroes. 

My major character complaint, though, is with Francisco. Francisco is my favorite character in the book, and I admit it would be difficult to find an actor to live up to my image of him. But Mr. Garcia doesn’t come close. It’s not a matter of looks; the guy is handsome enough. He simply does not carry himself like Señor Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian d’Anconia would. My impression of Garcia’s Francisco is that the depraved playboy is the man’s natural state while the tormented lover is a role that he is forced to play--in other words, Garcia’s characterization is exactly opposite what it should be. Why do I think this? It’s hard to put my finger on. There is something round and soft about his features. His voice lacks strictness and precision; his manner is devoid of ferocity, and worse, the capacity for ferocity. Courtesy and etiquette is wanting--inconceivable in the real Francisco. I had the urge to shout at the screen to tell him to sit up straighter in his chair. If there is ever a Part 2, I cannot imagine this character saving a furnace in the mill or clashing with Rearden in Dagny’s apartment. He portrays a good playboy but an unconvincing titan.




Beyond these character issues, I think the filmmakers made a big mistake by not establishing the setting somewhat ambiguously in the mid-20th century, approximately the 1950’s. I read that there was a very practical reason--that it would have cost too much--and if that is the case, then so be it. But it’s a huge missed opportunity for some truly dazzling, vivid, and rich visual imagery. There is something automatically exotic and extraordinary about “retro” settings. It is an atmosphere tailor-made for a movie version of Atlas Shrugged: the age when trains and steam and diesel engines still mattered; the clean lines of mid-century modern furniture and architecture; the filigree of cigarette smoke framing a thoughtful man’s face as he exhales; the elegant simplicity of dress--men striding in hats, coats, and ties. (If all the men in the film had been wearing hats as was the habit in the 1950’s, then when the mysterious, shadowy man in a fedora appeared, it would not have been his hat that seemed unusual, competing for attention with his important words.) I am not a filmmaker, but it seems to me that casting a setting to a remote time provides an opportunity to slightly exaggerate the contrasts of light and dark, and thus, good and evil.

Furthermore, many of the basic plot issues would have made much more sense. For one thing, the very fact of a woman being an executive in a big company, commonplace today, would in the 1950’s have been correctly viewed as unusual enough to suggest an extraordinary strength in Dagny. The quality of discourse, too, would have benefited by moving back half a century. For instance, I liked Edi Gathegi’s portrayal of Eddie Willers as a competent and loyal Taggart employee, but I thought his manner with Jim Taggart was far too impertinent. It was the sort of “talking back” that would raise no eyebrows today, but would in an earlier age have been seen as inappropriate and out of character for Eddie. Similarly, Francisco’s self-introduction to Rearden was unbefitting in its breeziness. In the novel, it is precisely Francisco’s civilized and refined manner, his baldly evident “authentic respect,” that takes Rearden by surprise and provides the first inkling of the great contradiction that Rearden will have to resolve. The logic of Francisco’s unsmiling and deadly serious opening move in the novel--”the action of naming an issue instead of evading it”--is entirely lost in Francisco’s absurdly jovial and familiar introduction in the movie.


Above all, and somewhat paradoxically, I believe setting the film in a time that is already gone would have made its moral message more apparent. The ordinariness--the sheer familiarity--of setting it essentially in today’s world tends to emphasize merely the prophetic nature of the novel, at the expense of its morality. The concrete events and political conditions in the movie ring too true with today’s world; the viewer might walk away thinking that Atlas Shrugged is simply a criticism of Bush-Obama politics as opposed to a complete philosophical treatise grounding freedom in metaphysical facts. Conveying the essence of Atlas Shrugged in movie form is difficult enough, but it seems insuperable to convince general movie audiences of its universality and timelessness without first severing their complacent hold upon the familiar. 




Enough about that. This post is running long, so I’ll just briefly mention a few miscellaneous things that bothered me, refraining from much elaboration.

The Catch Phrase
I don’t know for sure what Ayn Rand intended for emphasis in the famous catch phrase, but I have always imagined it as, “Who is John Galt?” That is, when the phrase “plays” in my head, the emphasis is on the verb “is.” That accentuation makes the most sense to me if the saying is going to convey the idea, “Why ask useless questions?” With that in mind, I was extremely annoyed to hear the verb “is” sometimes eliminated by shortening the phrase with a contraction: “Who’s John Galt?” That was uttered at least twice in the film, and it constitutes a pointless variation. On top of that, even considering that the filmmakers had to pack everything into about an hour and a half, I think they overused the phrase. I didn’t count the occurrences, but it began to feel forced, while in the novel it was cleverly and subtly woven into the story.

The Bracelet
One of my favorite scenes in the novel is the bracelet exchange between Lillian and Dagny, and unfortunately this was completely botched in the movie. If the filmmakers had simply followed the guidance of the dialogue in the book, they would have captured most of its brilliance: the trap Lillian sets for herself (“Why no, it’s not from a hardware store . . . Of course, I’d exchange it for a common diamond bracelet any time.”); the fact that Dagny discovers the significance of the bracelet only at that instant, not ahead of time, as in the movie, which defeats the spontaneity of the moment; the ruthless and uncompromising boldness of Dagny (“If you are not the coward that I think you are, you will exchange it.”); the hush of scandal and shock that fell over the party guests in the vicinity (“‘This is horrible!’ cried some woman.”) instead of the exchange in the movie going unnoticed by bystanders. The movie does everything possible to diffuse, dilute, and trivialize the scene. On top of it all, it ends absurdly by Rearden following Dagny almost meekly away from the confrontation, instead of standing like a Roman centurion by his wife to force himself through the motions of a loving husband--an action that is necessary both for logic, considering Rearden’s psychological stage at this point (which admittedly, movie viewers have no idea about), and for its stark contrast with a confrontation that will happen in Part 2 if it is ever made.  

The Sex
This brings me to the sex, which is simply ridiculous in the movie. I’m not sure how one would ever do the novel justice on this score, but the tender, gentle touching between Hank and Dagny, along with the default assumption (we the movie viewers are given no indication otherwise) that this is a casual, any-port-in-a-storm affair that results from the mere convenience of a man and a woman finding each other alone in a dark hallway at Ellis Wyatt’s house, is decidedly not the way to do it. In the movie, there is no fever, no passion, no violence, no self-torture, no surrender, no agony; there is no vulgarity, either hurled by a man as a weapon that tears his own flesh or accepted by a woman, with a shudder of pleasure, as a badge of honor. In the novel, Rearden is in agony on the rack, in chains that he has himself forged; he is at once in a cathedral and a dungeon. In the movie, Rearden has sex. 

The Mystery 
My final major complaint is that too much is given away in Part 1, which significantly undermines the suspense of the overall story. The disappearances of producers was handled very effectively, but it would have been much, much better if movie viewers were left with no idea what happened to them. The mysterious visitor, whose voice could be heard as he spoke to each producer before he disappeared, gave away too many hints, and then at the end, the existence of Atlantis was revealed directly and explicitly. That is way too early. We are not supposed to find out about that until the beginning of Part 3. (On top of that, the voice-over at the end delivered a vaguely libertarian message, indicating the presence of “very little government” in Atlantis, or something to that effect. I shuddered at that a bit. It is likely that this is an indication of the filmmakers’ superficial understanding of Objectivism.) I cannot understand the rationale of deliberately undermining the story in this manner. If anything, the movie (not to mention the sequels) would have benefited if viewers thought the disappearing producers were actually in peril; it would have stoked curiosity. The giveaways suggest that the filmmakers thought this was their last chance to speak to viewers--not an encouraging attitude for those of us hoping for Part 2 and Part 3.  



NOTES
The quotes from the novel are from Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Plume Printing, 1999, orig. 1957). 




2 comments:

Jason said...

Regarding when you say, "But it’s a huge missed opportunity for some truly dazzling, vivid, and rich visual imagery." If you're looking for that type of early to mid twentieth century vivid imagery, straightforward elegance, bright, bold color, and stark strident images of early modern industrialization and cars and cigarette smoking, I highly recommend the HBO five-part miniseries "Mildred Pierce." It aired very recently, so it should still be on HBO on Demand, as well as re-airing on regular HBO channels.

Lynne said...

While I do not share your preternatural predilection for the protagonist's pins . . .

That you were labeled fanboy made me laugh; that you were libeled conservative makes them daft.