Atlas Shrugged Part 2: Breaking Points

Statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged. Is the Third Option a variation on this theme?
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Everything has a breaking point. So reads the tag line in yesterday’s new release, Atlas Shrugged, Part Two. And this latest Atlas Shrugged movie shows what happens when a national government breaks its people’s will to live and work as usual. The result: the country itself breaks apart.

Atlas Shrugged timely release

The Atlas Distribution Company released the new Atlas Shrugged less than a month before the Presidential election. That should surprise no one. Many of the scenes in it look like re-stagings of modern TV reports. Angry Occupy Wall Street-style demonstrators mob a railroad executive. (And they don’t even know that he’s close with a government that says it’s their friend.) And when the government issues a draconian executive order, or “directive,” someone carves a picket sign in wood:

America. Born July 4, 1776. Died yesterday. RIP.

Other scenes play out like dire warnings from current trends. Gasoline sells for more than forty dollars a gallon. (A twenty-gallon fill-up for a pickup truck sells for $895 in one scene.) Naturally, traffic slows to a trickle. And, as in Atlas Shrugged, Part One, the railroads are the cheapest way to move people and goods to and fro. American hasn’t abandoned the airlines completely. But now they make one coast-to-coast flight a week.

Producer Harmon Kaslow makes no bones about Atlas Shrugged, Part Two being polemical. In a recent interview, someone asked him to whom Atlas Shrugged, Part Two would appeal. His reply:

If you enjoy your work and do it well, if you constantly strive to be better, if you work hard every day, you will love Atlas. However, if you feel a sense of entitlement – as in the government owes you something – simply because you exist, Atlas [Shrugged] is not a story for you. You are whom we are warning against.

He could have quoted this line that Henry “Hank” Rearden (Jason Beghe) gives to a young bureaucrat (Bug Hall):

One of these days, you’re going to have to decide which side you’re on.

A raging whirlpool

Statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

A statue of Atlas, that became the cover illustration for Atlas Shrugged

To see Atlas Shrugged, Part Two is to fall into a raging whirlpool from which you cannot break free. The movie portrays a country spiraling down. Every citizen and lawful resident loses freedom and wealth with equal breakneck speed. More than that, the movie follows a fast pace and never lets up. In the opening scene, a desperate woman pilot gives chase to a futuristic plane at low altitude in a twisting, turning valley. Suddenly the fleeing aircraft vanishes. And the chase plane’s instruments warn that the plane is about to crash. Into what? Before you can find out, the action freezes—to pick up nine months earlier.

Movie writers and directors have used that plot device often: begin in the middle, or even at the end, and always with a lot of action, and then back up to show how the hero(ine) got to that point.

Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis), of course, is that desperate pilot. She is also the COO of Taggart Transcontinental, the railroad on which nearly everyone and everything rides in the near-future America. Her challenge: introduce one new invention, a revolutionary electrostatic motor, into the troubled economy. Once she does that, somehow all the “looting” politicians and government planners will fade before the elemental force of human achievement. Or so she thinks.

The political forces are formidable enough. They include her brother Jim (Patrick Fabian), who regularly consorts with Washington men to get favors. The Washington men are worse, of course. The two key players are Wesley Mouch (Paul McCrane), chief economic adviser to the Head of State (not President; the title has changed), and Dr. Floyd Ferris (John Rubinstein), political liaison for the State Science Institute. Head of State Thompson (Ray Wise) appears once, but once is enough. He looks very much like Richard M. Nixon, though at least one catchword he uses (“Czar”) comes from Barack Obama. And anyone who remembers Nixon’s Four Phases of Economic Planning, beginning with the Ninety-day Wage and Price Freeze, will recognize elements of the Nixon program in “Directive 10-289.”

(Note: anyone who has not read the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, might think the scriptwriters plagiarized Nixon. They did not. Ayn Rand anticipated Nixon, with uncanny accuracy. She herself would acknowledge that in her Ayn Rand Letter, a forerunner of modern “Weblogs.”)

These government policies prove too much for many industrial captains to take. Some, like Kenneth Dannager (Arye Gross), simply quit. (Real-life CEO’s are now threatening to do just that.) Dannager pours out to Dagny what frustrates him most:

The government takes what it wants, and taxes what it leaves behind.

Dagny still will not quit. Soon you realize that she doesn’t want to quit. She’s hooked on thinking and acting. When a horrifying rail disaster strikes, she even thinks she can tell the government to bug off. (Wesley Mouch has little choice; the government literally cannot handle that disaster without her.)

But at least one other person thinks differently: Francisco d’Anconia (Esai Morales), once her childhood friend. He has a radical idea: if society thinks success is evil, he will give them failure! And not only failure but sabotage. Does he do that only to spite the hypocritical liberals who hold his stock while carping at him in public? Or is his motive deeper?

And who is the “destroyer of economies” who leads brilliant tycoons, inventors, and concert artists to vanish in their moments of triumph? And what do some of those people mean by leaving behind this note:

Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged—book and movie

A good movie version of a novel must stand on its own. Same with each part of a multi-part story. Atlas Shrugged, Part Two succeeds where Part One almost failed. But that kind of success has its price. Anyone viewing Part Two, without reading the book, will be just as happy if the series ends here. (Sorry, but I will not explain that here. Go see the film for yourselves.)

Atlas Shrugged, Part Two also does better at showing scenes, and people, out of real-life headlines. Kim Rhodes makes a subtly horrifying Lillian Rearden. If anyone makes The Obama Years, they should cast Ms. Rhodes as Nancy Pelosi. Jason Beghe, as Hank Rearden, recalls the craggy Ben Gazzara, especially in his later years. Robert Picardo, as Dr. Robert Stadler, is every deskbound, bespectacled bureaucrat you ever hated even to look at, much less deal with. Esai Morales gives Francisco d’Anconia a hint of violence about to break out. You can well believe he would blow up his own mines to spite his enemies. And all these actors, plus those I have named already, play their parts far better than those in Part One did.

The actors playing new characters give equally solid performances. Larisa Oleynik, as Cherryl Brooks Taggart, is every star-struck girl who ever believed the hype about a famous person. Diedrich Bader, as Quentin Daniels, easily plays the competent, not-to-be-fooled mechanic. (He knows the electrostatic motor model once ran. The wear and tear tells him that. And he makes you root for him as he tirelessly seeks to make it run again.)

Te movie might disappoint readers of the original Atlas Shrugged at first. Ragnar Danneskjöld, the buccaneer/privateer who figures so prominently in the book, rates no mention in the movie. Nor does Project X, the real reason the State Science Institute is so hot to order 10,000 tons of Rearden Metal. The scriptwriters also cut way short Francisco’s speech at Jim Taggart’s wedding, and Hank Rearden’s defiant “non-defense defense” before the Unification Board. But that disappointment shouldn’t last. The scriptwriters clearly cut to the chase. Literally. With less than two hours to tell their story, they had to. If you want long, drawn-out speeches, write old-time soap opera. (Which, by the way, is what television first served up while Ayn Rand wrote the book.)

And once again, the interloper who pumps Eddie Willers (Richard T. Jones) for information never appears. No one could explain his presence if the story didn’t identify him. Which, as readers of the book know, doesn’t happen until near the end of Part Three. (And for that matter, Jones’ Willers is not the human puppy of the book. That’s an improvement.)

Whither Part Three?

No one knows whether the producers will make Atlas Shrugged, Part Three. That will depend on box-office receipts and how dedicated the producers are to their project. Receipts, and reception, for Part One disappointed them. (The film lost money. Enough said.) Part Two plays better than Part One did, and had a wider first release (over 1000 screens). So this film might work. But the producers will have good reason to make the third film only if enough viewers, especially if they didn’t read the book, really care about the few loose ends Part Two leaves untied.

Related:

A Wild Ride to a Social Train Wreck