The Mainstreaming of "Atlas Shrugged," Part II
The second installment in the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy opens in theaters next week. Thanks to the producers, I got to see the official premier of the film in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
Let's start with the bottom line: the second installment is better than the first in nearly every respect.
If you want to recall what I thought about Part I, I've put my articles up on the new website here, here, and here. I had decidedly mixed feelings. I loved the phenomenon of the film, the way that it combined with the Tea Party movement to cement the role of Atlas Shrugged as a key intellectual source for the political right.
At the same time, I was a disappointed that the focus of the film was narrower and more political than that of the novel, that some of the characters were converted to Hollywood clichés, and that some of the filmmaking was, shall we say, less than fully polished, partly because of the rush to make the film before the producers' rights expired.
The second film, by contrast, had a bigger budget and a little more time, and it shows. It has better casting, a better script, better cinematography, better direction, better production values.
This is one of those cases where the trailer for the film actually gives you a good, accurate feel for the film as a whole.
I could offer a number of minor criticisms, but I will mention just one: the film looks really good—too good. The sets are too beautiful, too nice-looking to convey the right sense of decline and collapse. The filmmakers occasionally try to dress it down a little—I liked the heaps of trash bags on a New York City street, reminiscent of what New York was really like in the 1970s—but it is just a little bit of muss amid streets and buildings that look new and are in good repair. Yet the mood of Part II is supposed to be genuinely dark, because the world is collapsing. Maybe it's because I'm old enough to actually remember the 1970s—and I lived in the Rust Belt at the time—but I thought the visual look of the film should have been much grittier.
This is more than counter-balanced by the improvement in the cast, not just in the main roles but in many of the minor roles. While it may seem disconcerting that they got rid of the entire cast from Part I and replaced them in Part II, it was a trade up.
I particularly liked Patrick Fabian as the story's main villain, Jim Taggart. He captured something that was missing from Taggart in the first film: the constant undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty. Jim considers himself a slick operator, a master of manipulation who always has some complicated scheme of political pull in the works, but it's always going wrong in some way he can't figure out, and so he's always losing his composure and having to struggle to regain it. Fabian really managed to convey that.
I also like Jason Beghe as Hank Rearden—you see a lot of him in the trailer. The Rearden in Part I, Grant Bowler, was my favorite part of the film, the only actor who had a really strong presence and some star quality. But he was a bit too "Hollywood handsome" and not quite as rough-hewn as I think the character called for. Beghe, by contrast, is lean, wiry, and gruff, with a gravelly voice. When I saw him on screen, I thought: now that is the tough SOB who worked his way up out of the ore mines.
Esai Morales is a very good Francisco. He is more classically handsome—he is supposed to be a playboy, after all—and he brings depth and conviction to his delivery of some iconic lines. In the trailer, you can hear his setup for the line that gives the novel its title.
Samantha Mathis is a good Dagny Taggart. The Dagny from Part I was too young and was only able to deliver one note in her performance: Dagny as the ambitious, self-confident go-getter. Mathis is better at conveying the complexity of the character, including her emotional vulnerability. She brings greater maturity to the role. But perhaps a little too much maturity. Mathis is in her 40s, but in the novels, Dagny is described as being a decade younger, and that is the right age for the character. She has to be old enough to really know what she's doing—which is one of the reasons an actress in her 20s didn't work well the first time—but young enough not to have it all figured out yet. And she has to still have some of the boundless energy and idealism that is associated with youth. That is central to her character; what drives Dagny is the conviction that if she just works a little harder, if she can just break through a few more obstacles, she can turn everything around. By contrast, Mathis sometimes seems a little too harried and middle-aged.
But this is a minor complaint, and the bigger budget and better casting decisions carry on to the minor roles as well. The bigger budget is reflected in the ability to get seasoned, veteran actors. This also happens to produce a lot of "I know that guy" moments. Mr. Thompson is played by Ray Wise, who plays the sleazy villain in—well, just about everything. Arye Gross as Ken Dannegger? You probably saw him last as Perlmutter, the sardonic medical examiner in "Castle"—and oh yes, as the bland little bureaucrat who almost assassinates Michael Westen in season one of "Burn Notice." Kip Chalmers? One of the bad guys from Cliffhanger. Wesley Mouch? Astronaut Pete Conrad in "From the Earth to the Moon." Dr. Robert Stadler? The holographic doctor from "Star Trek: Voyager." And so on. That's not to mention the cameos, which include a number of DC conservatives, along with Teller of Penn & Teller.
Not all of these characters were cast the way I would have cast them—which is, of course, the absolutely perfect way—but they were plausible versions of the characters from the novel. Take Diedrich Bader as Quentin Daniels. He's not the same as the character in the novel, not as abrupt and self-contained, but he is convincing as an intense, intelligent, driven scientist (which is why it took me a while to realize that I last saw this actor as the less-than-perceptive Oswald in "The Drew Carey Show"). This is the kind of adaptation that is quite permissible when going from a novel to a film. A novel has more time to "set up" a character, to describe him, to give his background, even to let us know his thoughts. In a film, especially with secondary characters, there is no time for any of this development. We have to be able to "read" everything we get from the character just by seeing him and hearing his voice. So it's appropriate to adapt a character to a version that is easier to grasp in this immediate, visual way.
Moreover, there are some characters who serve an important role in the novel who make it into the film in such a cursory version—with no background, no history, no complicated role, just as a brief plot point to move the story forward—that the filmmakers actually have to change the nature of the character. This is done in the film most notably with Dave Mitchum. In the novel, he is a scheming, shifty-eyed lout, hired as a political favor to one of Jim Taggart's friends, who ends up causing a railroad disaster. In the movie, he's a well-meaning but hapless young man who is promoted above his competence because of Jim's fecklessness. It's a change I can accept because I understand how much time it would take to set up the context for the Mitchum character from the novel.
I have focused a lot on the casting, because this is a big part of the enjoyment of the film for fans of the novel. A lot of what we're looking for is to see the story we know so well turned into visual reality, to have the characters come alive. So having good actors who are right for the roles is at least half the battle.
The other half is the plot, and this is where the film is not so strong. Bill Frezza came up with a good analogy when he described Part I as "a CliffsNotes version of Ayn Rand's epic novel." In his review of Part II, he offers a more generous description: it is "a pastiche of excerpts from the middle third" of the novel. But he worries that so much of the story is still missing that the film will end up being far more accessible to viewers who already know the original story.
And that's how I watched Atlas Shrugged, Part II—filling in the missing lines, adding the absent characters, mentally conjuring up the omitted back stories, and letting my memories merge with the actors' efforts to draw the best they could from a screenplay ruthlessly truncated to fit the required format. It's a bold attempt, and I will not dismiss the effort despite the fact that a viewer unfamiliar with the novel is likely to be mystified, wondering what the big deal is.
This struck a chord with me because it is precisely how I watch the 1949 Gary Cooper version of The Fountainhead. It's not too bad—if you know the novel well enough to understand what the characters are doing and why. If you don't, your results are likely to be mixed.
What is specifically missing from Atlas Shrugged, Part II is the overall narrative impetus of the plot. There is a kind of paint-by-numbers approach to how the plot is constructed in the film. It's like they have an outline of key scenes that they have to include, and they're filling in the spaces one by one. But they've lost sight of the wider context that integrates all of those scenes and drives the novel from one scene to the next.
So what is the big narrative idea of the second part of the novel?
Before I answer that, let me offer a "spoiler" warning. With this audience, I usually don't worry too much about spoilers—I assume most of my readers already know the novel—but I should mention this particular spoiler because it's a big one, and having it be a surprise is crucial to Part II of the novel. So if you haven't read it and if you have somehow managed to escape having the plot spoiled for you already, stop reading this article and start reading Atlas Shrugged. Do it now, before some overenthusiastic fan spills the beans and robs you of the full experience.
There is a lot that happens in Part II, but the main thrust of the narrative is a kind of mystery-thriller story. Dagny spends this section of the novel chasing down two mystery men: the inventor of the motor she discovered in Part I, and "the destroyer." She figures out that the disappearance of the world's great geniuses is not a coincidence. She starts to sense that there is a man behind it, someone who knows which industrialists are under the most pressure and are ready to break, and who tracks them down and says something to them that convinces them to give up their life's work. She starts looking for clues to track this man down and to save the world (as she sees it) by killing him.
In the background, there is a series of other mysterious figures, such as the third student who studied under Hugh Akston alongside Francisco D'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold, and the mystery man who appeared outside her office when she was working on the John Galt Line.
This plot structure of Part II is resolved when she finally puts together enough pieces to realize that all of the mystery men who have been hinted at in the novel are the same man. The John Galt of the various myths and legends she overhears is the same man as the John Galt of the popular expression of despair, who is the same man as the third student who is the same man as the inventor of the motor who is the same man who is convincing everyone to quit. There are a few tumblers left to fall into place later, like the fact that he's also the worker Eddie has been spilling his guts to in the Taggart cafeteria—that this man wasn't just a literary device to help with exposition but is actually a central player in the plot. But there is a moment toward the end of Part II where a whole bunch of disparate strands suddenly come together.
This moment has the characteristic of the best kind of mystery novel, which is that the intelligent reader is able to put together all the pieces, or almost all of them, just half a beat before the answer is explicitly revealed by the author. (That, at least, was the experience I had, since I had the good fortune of reading the novel without knowing anything significant about its plot beforehand.) And as in a good mystery, you don't see the answer coming, but once you see it, you realize that all of the previous clues fit together with clockwork logical precision.
This structure—Dagny chasing these mysterious figures and having all of those mysteries come together in one solution—really makes the plot of Part II move. I mentioned in my recent discussions of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables how he takes a disparate ensemble of characters and bring all of their stories together in one climactic event. Ayn Rand—under Hugo's influence, of course—achieves a similar feat, taking all of the mysteries presented in the novel, including the intellectual mysteries, and tying them together in one moment. Dagny starts to realize that all of the men she has been chasing are one man, that he is real, and that he is about to take away the one thing her whole world is depending on: the motor and Quentin Daniels' attempt to rebuild it. Thus, the whole plot of the novel propels her forward into the climactic act of Part II, the desperate airplane chase that ends with her crash-landing in Colorado.
The new film version of Part II does not keep this plot structure firmly in mind, so it does not provide the same sense of a series of mysteries being suddenly resolved. It progresses more on a scene-by-scene basis—one scene's action leading to the next, one at a time—rather than presenting a long buildup into a climax, where all of the scenes lead up to the final one.
I think this is the reason why the film is going to mean more to readers who are familiar with the plot, who already know how the plot is supposed to build up and can fill in that progression in their own minds.
Nevertheless, this new film is significant progress. As I said, its chief value is to translate the characters on the page into visual reality on the screen, and it does so with greater credibility and competence than in Atlas Shrugged, Part I. We shouldn't underestimate how much this means. Having the characters and events in Atlas Shrugged translated into something we can see, having them in a form that makes them more real, will help make the novel more powerful, more accessible, and more influential.
It will also contribute to the process started by the reaction to the first film. It was, as I wrote at the time, the moment that Ayn Rand was officially inducted into the mainstream canon of the right—and therefore, to a significant degree, into the mainstream of the culture. That was cemented more recently by the selection of Paul Ryan—a well-known fan of Atlas Shrugged—as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential nominee. It has gotten to the point where people on the left are openly lamenting that they don't have an equivalent, a "liberal Atlas Shrugged."
By providing a competent translation of the novel into visual reality, a better vehicle for intriguing viewers and making them interested in the characters, events, and ideas of the original novel, Atlas Shrugged, Part II make a positive new contribution to that process. It is the mainstreaming of Atlas Shrugged, Part II.
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