Friday, April 26, 2013

Famous Flops: Atlas Shrugged: Part I

This is the second in a monthly series in which I subject myself to famously bad movies, and see if they're as famously bad as I think they'll be. 

In the wake of Roger Ebert's death, I've heard a lot of people discussing how personal the job of film critic was to him. They've talked about how Ebert made himself a part of his reviews, how he fearlessly championed movies because they were in his wheelhouse, while pillorying movies that he was never likely to appreciate in the first place.

It may seem strange to start a discussion of the flop Atlas Shrugged: Part I with a fond remembrance of Roger Ebert, but hang with me for a minute.

Although I cherished the man, I do take a slightly different approach to film criticism than he did. I take film criticism personally in the sense that I argue passionately for the merits and against the weaknesses of the films I discuss, but I do also believe that I need to remove my "self" from the proceedings as much as I can. One example of that: When I was reviewing movies for All Movie Guide, I often sought out movies where I was not part of the intended demographic, such as movies aimed at African-Americans. I thought these movies deserved to be given fair and earnest reviews, reviews that were not inevitably crippled by the fact that I was not African-American. I don't know what Ebert's approach was to reviewing such movies, but according to the philosophy of his approach, he would have been justified in reviewing these movies negatively simply because they were not aimed at him. (And let's be honest, movies aimed at black audiences don't necessarily attract the top-money talent in the industry.)

That brings us, finally, to Paul Johansson's 2011 film Atlas Shrugged: Part I. It's the first in a series that's supposed to eventually have three parts, the final installment of which will complete the adaptation of Ayn Rand's famous novel. Part 2 came out last year, and was dismissed with just as many critical guffaws as was Part 1.

The thing is, part of what most critics seemed to hate about this movie has something to do with taking the Ebert approach to how it offended their personal sensibilities. I'm not saying I liked Atlas Shrugged: Part I, but neither was I ready to laugh it out of the building. 

Perhaps it's time to give some explanation why Ebert and others would not have liked this movie.

If you're not familiar with Ayn Rand, she was basically a conservative ideologue. She believed in the exceptionalism of the individual, which sounds good in the abstract. But what the idea boils down to is that greatness is derived from self-actualized human beings striving for their own rational self-interest, who will logically, as part of this pursuit, create the great inventions and ideas of our age. She believed that a society founded on the good of the community tended to be the enemy of these great specimens of humanity. Simply put, she was a hardcore capitalist who despised socialism. However, she disguised much of this through a philosophy called Objectivism, which enabled her to put more of an intellectual spin on her essential elitism.

Now, movies that have strongly conservative agendas tend to do very poorly with critics. The reasons for this are fairly simple: 1) Most critics come from the world of journalism, and most journalists tend to be liberal; 2) Most filmmakers also tend to be liberal, which means that movies made by conservatives tend to be weaker aesthetically. There's a third reason: Since movies with strongly conservative agendas are very rare, they tend to leave a person feeling "weirded out" in a way they can't entirely pinpoint. That "I just walked into the wrong lecture" feeling.

All of this is to say that Atlas Shrugged: Part I is not as bad of a film as it was made out to be. Though it did definitely leave me feeling "weirded out" from time to time.

The story, such as I'm able to explain it, involves several captains of industry as its protagonists -- the first tip-off that it's not your usual story. In most stories, the hero would be the little guy, but the heroes here are the big guys. The villains are the ones who want to regulate them. But this may not even be weirdest part.

The weirdest part is that the primary indicator of the health or illness of the U.S. economy in the not-too-distant future (2016 to be exact) is the rail industry. That's right, the economy seems to live or die on which trains are doing well and which aren't. One of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged is Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), a bigwig at the heretofore massively profitable Taggart Transcontinental. Another hero of Atlas Shrugged is Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), the CEO of Rearden Steel, which is manufacturing a new steel amalgam that will allow the fastest transcontinental travel ever. Everyone else in the movie -- and I mean everyone -- is fixated on the success or failure of their partnership.

The villains are those who support unionized workers, try to stifle companies that want to become monopolies, and generally want to end the fun that the rich people enjoy so much. One of the key developments in the plot is the passage of a bill that disallows any person from owning more than one company. Yes, the movie is asking you to root for the big guy against the little guy.

But this is what Rand's book is about. It's not set in 2016, but otherwise, the book sounds very similar. It presents her political perspective, which we may think is kooky, but which was responsible for a best-selling novel.

If Johansson presented Rand's ideas ineptly, then we'd be right to rake him over the coals. But to be honest, much of this movie is decently executed. Sure, it has that kind of weird feeling of promoting fringe ideas, and the corresponding weird feeling of no one famous appearing in any of the key roles -- smaller parts essayed by the likes of Jon Polito and Michael Lerner is about as close to the A list as this movie gets. (Schilling would later appear in a movie opposite Zac Efron.) Part of this, of course, is because the movie is low budget. But it doesn't look low budget, so that's a feather in Johansson's cap as well.

The worst thing about the movie is probably its lack of action. There's a lot -- a lot -- of discussion about business strategies, about schemes to increase profitability and drive one's competitors out of business. After awhile you start to think "Have they really just been talking about trains for the past hour?" The answer is yes, yes they have.

So this is not my kind of movie. The protagonists are fundamentally difficult to root for, even if they are indeed exceptional by Rand's standards. There's not a lot of action. And the politics are something with which I essentially disagree.

But is this a halfway decent adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, as far as I can tell? Yes, it is, it's halfway decent.

Perhaps I was predisposed not to hate Atlas Shrugged because I really loved the 1949 adaptation of her other most famous novel, The Fountainhead. King Vidor's film is about an exceptional architect, played by Gary Cooper, whose main struggle is with an architectural community that wants to change him or reel him in. I didn't know anything about Rand and her politics when I saw it, and this is what I wrote in my review:

"Rand's talky philosophies, which dominate the film for better or worse, invite endless contemplation about what it means to be a trendsetter and to protect the purity of one's artistic endeavors, especially in a world eager to quash those who challenge the status quo."

In other words, divorced from a liberal's bias against Rand, I found these ideas fascinating, even powerful.

I do think it's fair to meet a movie like Atlas Shrugged: Part I on its own terms -- just as I did when I saw 2016: Obama's America and decided that it was a reasonably competent expression of a case against Obama. I think the theories in that documentary are crackpot theories, but the evidence is presented in a way that makes me understand why the people who hold those opinions hold them. So, thumbs down, but not the most ridiculous movie I've ever seen.

Because of some of the ways it's slow and a bit too dense for its own good, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is definitely also a thumbs down for me. But it's not a laughable thumbs down.

And yeah, sure, all these oblique references to an unseen character named John Galt are a little ponderous, especially since there's no resolution to them. But loose threads are expected in a film that's supposed to be the first of three.

I'm even kind of curious to see how the next two parts turn out.

Okay, looking ahead to May ... the Olivia Newton John bomb Xanadu. At least it'll be plenty cheeky.

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