This will be a briefer first draft of a full review that will appear later this year in Mondo Cult Issue 3. See also Karl Hess Club Talk: Atlas Opened.

–J. Neil Schulman

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1
Director, Paul Johansson
Screenplay by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole
From the Novel by Ayn Rand
The Strike Productions / Rocky Mountain Pictures
Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Michael Lerner, Graham Beckel, Rebecca Wisocky, Edi Gathegi, Jsu Garcia

Atlas Shrugged -- Part 1
Atlas Shrugged — Part 1

There were around thirty ticket-holders at the Torrance, CA midnight showing of Atlas Shrugged – Part 1 last night. I was not the only person in the audience who had driven from Nevada for this showing; there was also a couple from Henderson (Las Vegas adjacent). The audience bonded in lively conversations before the showing, and I discovered that many in the audience were, like me, great admirers of the novel who’d been waiting for this event for many years.

Just before the movie started I heard a soft prayer from behind me: “Please don’t suck.”

Ayn Rand was one of two libertarian novelists who inspired me to follow in their footsteps — the other being Robert A. Heinlein — and Ayn Rand would have fiercely objected to being called a libertarian. Ayn Rand objected to so much of her culture that she even developed a philosophy which she called Objectivism. That’s not what she meant by the term, but her philosophy begins with such a trenchant deconstruction of the proclaimed ideas that much of the human race lives by that my explanation for the term is at least as good as hers.

Ayn Rand did not base her life choices on what other people thought of her. This was a good decision because she spent much of her life pissing people off. Oddly the more closely they agreed with her, the more pissed off they were.

Ayn Rand refused to support the candidacy of the one elected president of her lifetime whose political ideas were closest to her own: Ronald Reagan. Her reason for not supporting Reagan was pure left-wing feminism: Reagan opposed a woman’s right to have an abortion. Yet, did Ayn Rand get any street cred from feminists for this? With exceptions notable for their rarity, no.

Ayn Rand thought the War in Vietnam was a mistake. She opposed the draft. Her individualism was so deeply taken for granted in her philosophy that one of her friends had to bug her to write about how racism was a form of collectivist evil. Her portraits of empowered women in her fiction and drama make Rand far more worthy of having her face minted on a dollar than Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea.

Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, was viciously attacked by William F. Buckley’s iconic conservative magazine, National Review. It was universally panned by liberal and left-wing critics as well. The only support for this novel came from millions of readers, and that number continues growing half a century later, at a rate so high it still outsells most novels ranked on best-seller lists.

Rand had her own philosophy of literature and drama which she termed “romantic realism,” and her style was crafted to her own standards, not those of reviewers, critics, or university English departments. Her bold style, the literary equivalent of writing in primary colors, is easily attacked as comic-bookish, and if she were a young writer today you can bet the farm she would have been a star at Comic Con.

So, when the first movie made from Atlas Shrugged hit theaters yesterday it was a no-brainer prediction that film critics would dismiss and attack the movie in terms identical to the literary condemnations of its source material.

Ignore these critics as background noise. They’re not who the movie was made for.

The odd thing about Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is that based on its actual plot — not all the rhetorical flourishes about capitalism and working for a profit — Michael Moore should love this movie. It’s about honest working people who care about their jobs being foiled by corporate lobbyists conspiring with politicians.

In a scene you’d never see in any other movie, Railroad magnate Dagny Taggart tells a union representative who walks into her office intending to threaten her with a walk-out that all she wants the union members to have is to make their own free choices about whether to work on what’s being called a high-risk job. Boy, is that pro-greed and anti-union.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Despite Atlas Shrugged‘s status as a super-best-seller for over fifty years, the major studios choked for half a century on making this movie. To make this movie up to studio standards would have cost as much as Avatar and there is no James Cameron in Hollywood today who could love Ayn Rand’s philosophy expressed in Atlas Shrugged enough to put themselves at odds with the rest of the movie industry.

Like a new type of steel, a new petroleum cracking process, a new railroad line in Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the Atlas Shrugged movie itself could never be a product of business as usual. The movie could only be an indie production, and that means severe budget limitations. Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is at the upper edge of independent movie financing — approximately $15 million — and an order of magnitude above the costs of most indie films today — which make equity investors shake in their boots if more than $1 million is being spent.

So Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 has both the merits and limitations of an indie film. It has the bold, iconic vision of an indie film that can never exist in studio green-lit productions which are made within the boundaries of cookie-cutter formulas. It therefore had to choose between spending its production funding on building sets and massive CGI, or on A-list star salaries which are often enough higher than this movie’s entire production budget.

With a star director like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, a star writer like William Goldman, and star actors like Aaron Eckhart and Scarlett Johansson, Atlas Shrugged could have been a perfectly executed movie. That’s what’s made possible when any production roadblock can be solved by throwing gobs of money at it. You get cinematic perfection, even if it has to be re-shot or fixed in post.

That movie could never be made. The people who okay writing checks that enormous share the values of the people Ayn Rand was attacking in Atlas Shrugged. They’re the big businessmen Atlas Shrugged skewers and damns to atheist hell.

So what was possible in the real world was an indie production made without stars, without iconic talent, and which — I can tell you this from my own experience as an indie producer/director — you do the best you can on the day, then the 1st AD says to the director, “It is what it is.” The director says, “We’re done here. Call lunch.” The 1st AD shouts, “Lunch! We’re on the wrong set!”

Given these standards, Atlas Shrugged; Part 1 is as good as it gets for an indie film production from a novel that demands ten times the money it was made for. Blaming it for not being as polished as a studio film shows either ignorance of the movie business or is just a cheap way of cursing at it by people who hate its authorial viewpoint and look for new and better ways to attack it. When you hear a critic lambasting the production values of Atlas Shrugged, they’re lying. They’re attacking the production values of an ambitious indie film because they can’t attack the movie’s content without admitting their bias.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is as faithful an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s half-century old novel as could survive the transition of an epic — and sometimes dated — novel to independent film. It has none of the bombast of Ayn Rand’s literary style; if anything the production look and directing style is nuanced and understated. The storytelling is necessarily economical.

There is, in the movie, a new railroad bridge made out of a new kind of steel — lighter, stronger, and cheaper than steel — and this bridge is elegantly simple.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is that bridge.

If you’ve loved the novel and understand the limits of independent film, you should appreciate the film adaptation.

I love the novel and came out of the theater thinking, “This movie is Atlas Shrugged.”

Industrialist/inventor, Henry Rearden, repeatedly asks one question of a government official who wants to pay him any figure just to protect existing industry from his new product. Rearden repeatedly demands, “Is it good?”

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is good.

If you’re not already a fan, be prepared for something you’ve never seen in a movie before: a fundamentally honest depiction of the nature of the struggle between those who pull and those who ride free in this country … and why Ayn Rand, speaking from the grave, has shown us why both honest working for profit and true charity from the heart are destroyed by a malignant virus called “self-sacrifice.”

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is not a demented defense of psychopaths like Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko or Avatar‘s Parker Selfridge, but a demand for freedom from exactly those demented psychopaths who demand that your shoulders be yoked to their plough. We who think we’re called to something higher need to shrug these thugs in business suits off.

If you don’t understand the difference between larceny and production, you need to see this movie. Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged — John Aglialoro spent fifteen-million dollars of his own money making Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 — so you can see the clear difference that these criminals will pay anything to hide.

My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available as a DVD on and for sale or rental on Instant Video. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!

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