Sunday, November 20, 2011

W.B. at the Movies: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

Tinseltown has wanted to make Ayn Rand’s dystopian epic for a long time. The proposals included and all-star love story in the 1970s, with Faye Dunaway as Dagny Taggart, Robert Redford as John Galt, and Clint Eastwood as Hank Rearden. Most famously in recent years, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wanted a crack at the story of an overbearing government and its corrupt corporate co-conspirators living parasitically off the creativity and labors of the true innovators and entrepreneurs among us.

It’s fitting that the film – now available on DVD – was finally produced independent of the film industry establishment. The denizens controlling that industry routinely cast ambitious business people as villains; what ghastly concoction would they make from a novel where business leaders are heroes and the villains are the government that would rein them in?

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, was produced on a wing and a prayer using a cast comprised largely of somewhat familiar character actors and unknowns. Filmed over a matter of weeks to avoid losing the movie rights, the film arrived last April 15 with what could charitably be called low expectations.

To ask “Did they manage to make a good movie?” is the equivalent of asking in the context of the story, “Is Rearden Metal a pretty decent product?”

The philosophical concepts are there. The performances are there. The production values look far more expensive than the meager (by Hollywood standards) $10 million budget. The screenplay seizes all of the essential elements from a complex and busy novel and tosses them up on the screen. The story is compelling and 102 minutes race by like a bullet train.

Taylor Schilling has a short resume, but it’s hard to imagine the more familiar Dunaway or Jolie owning the role of Dagny Taggart more convincingly than Schilling does. She leads an ensemble cast that does justice to Rand’s novel and then some. Sharon Howard-Field and Ronnie Yeskel deserve a standing ovation for their casting prowess. If some scenes seem melodramatic, well, guess what folks, Rand wrote a melodrama, a cracking good melodrama that has been turned into a cracking good movie.

Under the circumstances those of us who admire the novel would have been satisfied if this film was good enough to reflect its story and its themes. But one of those themes is that “good enough” is not good enough. These filmmakers clearly aimed for excellence, and against all odds they hit the mark.

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