Why the new ‘Atlas Shrugged’ movie could become a cult classic

Brian Calle Contributor
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“Atlas Shrugged: Part 1,” the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s prescient, unabashedly pro-free market capitalism novel, hits theaters April 15. Its timing could not be better.

Though taken from a book written a half-century ago and set in the year 2016, the movie is eerily similar to the world today, bearing a particular resemblance to the United States and the societal and economic depreciation of states like California, where manufacturing industries have collapsed, economic liberty and entrepreneurialism are eroding, and productive members of society seem to be rapidly disappearing, or rather, run out of business by bureaucratic red tape and unreasonable regulations.

While the literary polish of Rand’s 1,000-plus-page novel is unparalleled, the cinematic version of her philosophical peregrination that questions which society is preferable for mankind — one of rational self-interest or one meant to level all individual output — upholds her objectivist worldview and ought to stoke the debate about free society and the role of government.

Not only is the film a winner for holding firm to Randian philosophy, it also brazenly and refreshingly brings a political perspective that is almost universally absent from the big screen; so much so in fact it could become a cult classic, especially among Tea Partiers and their admirers, not to mention hordes of libertarians.

The film, true to the book, is set in the United States in 2016, with a global economy in shambles, conflicts in the Middle East disrupting oil supplies, massive oil spills, pronounced class warfare, demonization of private companies, overly powerful union bosses, bureaucrats and special interests, empty factories, fleeing entrepreneurs and innovators, overreaching government regulations and businesses ever more subservient to government bureaucrats. Does this dystopian society seem familiar? If not, perhaps you have been hiding in some utopian village in the Rocky Mountains the rest of us do not know about.

With all this against them, some creative business-types are still trying to innovate, produce, and make money, namely Dagny Taggart, Ellis Wyatt and Hank Rearden.

Taggart, the assertive young idealist heroine with a pronounced zest for entrepreneurialism, runs a railroad, Taggart Transcontinental. Wyatt is a wealthy oil man whose company is responsible for the one economically viable and prosperous state in the union, Colorado. Rearden is the inventor of Rearden Metal, a fictitious alloy used in railroad tracks that is cheaper, more durable and stronger than steel.

In the film, government is devoted to economic equality. Bureaucrats seek to thwart the growth of thriving companies, like those of Taggart, Wyatt and Rearden, because society “cannot afford to allow the expansion of a company that produces too much and might replace companies that produce too little.” To the government (and broader society), such expansion would “create an unbalanced economy.” That is, the most productive and capable members of society would enjoy a disproportionate share of the society’s resources.

Of course, these ideas mirror the rhetoric coming from many in Washington, where the prevailing wisdom is that profit is bad, profiteers are greedy, and meritocracy in the marketplace is contemptible.

A telling quote comes from a lobbyist who later becomes a government economic czar, Wesley Mouch (who bares a resemblance to Democratic Rep. Barney Frank): “Everybody needs to share the burdens.” That sounds like something an Obama speechwriter would write. Actually, while addressing the National Governors Association a few weeks ago, Obama made “shared sacrifice” the theme of his talk.

In the movie, the government imposes a national tax on Colorado, the one state whose economy is thriving, in an effort to equalize the national economy and achieve that shared sacrifice. Other rules are made, such as oil distribution based on need, and a ban on companies moving to wealthier states.

Government agencies also produce false scientific reports condemning viable products like Rearden Metal, in an attempt to cripple the industry. Congress makes it illegal to own more than one company and prohibits profitable companies from firing employees. This is done in the name of “social progress” and “the welfare of the nation” with a willingness to “sacrifice anyone’s profit” to achieve those ends.

Facing constant condemnation by government and the public, and with no promise of a free and fair economic system to work in, manufacturers, innovators and producers begin to disappear, one by one, leaving behind only a question: Who is John Galt?

The question is not really answered in “Part 1,” but even a viewer who has never heard of Ayn Rand would guess the identity of the shadowy, trench-coat wearing man who appears sporadically throughout the movie “simply offering a society that cultivates individual achievement.”

As the country and the quality of life of its people deteriorate further because of government policies and decisions by some companies to pay workers based on their needs rather than their contributions, Taggart asks, “Why all of these stupid altruistic urges?” To her “it is not being charitable or fair.”

One of the last scenes in the movie characterizes the sad dilemma for those who value individual and economic liberty so much they are willing to give up everything to pursue it. Ellis Wyatt decides to disappear, and a short time later a massive fire engulfs his oil wells, factories and the surrounding valley. A sign over the valley reads: “I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours.”

Even facing government takeovers of industry and stifling regulations, Taggart and Rearden remain willing to fight. While discussing the decline of society, Rearden says to Taggart, “It’s us who move the world and it is us who will pull it through.”

Capitalism, personal responsibility and individual liberty are the philosophical foundations of a free society. When the creation of wealth and the freedom to make personal decisions is attacked by government do-gooders and utopians, civilization and quality of life decline. In the film, most of the oppressed people simply leave for greener pastures. In the real world, the ideological battle rages on.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is not your typical slick Hollywood blockbuster or artistic independent film, and it doesn’t have to be. Rather, it is a movie about big ideas, whose subject matter stands alone, released at a time when the ideological direction of the country sparks intense debate. The movie is a catalyst for critical thinking about worldviews competing in today’s body politic.

Brian Calle is an opinion columnist and editorial writer for the Orange County Register (ocregister.com/opinion). He blogs at ocregister.com/orangepunch and freedompolitics.com.