Having lived such an eventful, controversial life, the late author-philosopher Ayn Rand is indisputably a fascinating and worthy subject for full-length documentary treatment. Benefiting from some first-rate archival, personal and commercial film material, Michael Paxton's Oscar-nominated effort serves as a solid and appreciative precis of her life and world views, but doesn't get down in the trenches to illustrate how and why she stirred up such passions pro and con, and gingerly refrains from analyzing the paradoxes and complexities of her personality and intimate relationships. Strand should be able to ride the nomination to good returns in docu-friendly specialized situations, with a long life all but assured in various TV outlets and video.

Having lived such an eventful, controversial life, the late author-philosopher Ayn Rand is indisputably a fascinating and worthy subject for full-length documentary treatment. Benefiting from some first-rate archival, personal and commercial film material, Michael Paxton’s Oscar-nominated effort serves as a solid and appreciative precis of her life and world views, but doesn’t get down in the trenches to illustrate how and why she stirred up such passions pro and con, and gingerly refrains from analyzing the paradoxes and complexities of her personality and intimate relationships. Strand should be able to ride the nomination to good returns in docu-friendly specialized situations, with a long life all but assured in various TV outlets and video.

Rand remains best known as the author of the megasellers “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” two mammoth novels designed to communicate her hero-worshipping belief in the primacy of uncompromising individualism. Atheistic and vehemently anti-totalitarian, Rand developed a philosophy she called Objectivism, a new code of morality based on logic and realism, and promoted her ideas tirelessly through her books, articles, speeches and media appearances.

Because her antipathy toward big government was epitomized by her hatred of communism, she was a favorite target of liberal-left intellectuals of the time. But she also developed a deeply committed following, especially among students; her work, and “The Fountainhead” in particular, can be an enormously influential and formative book if read at the right age, i.e., in high school or college, when its combination of fiercely held principles and unbridled lust has seemed like the Truth to countless impressionable readers.

Docu very clearly enunciates the basic tenents of Rand’s outlook, mainly by repeating them rather more than necessary. But where it scores most strongly is in laying out the remarkable arc of the subject’s early life. Born Alice Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, one of three daughters of comfortably bourgeois parents, the precocious girl is said to have rejected the ideas of God and destiny at an early age. Fascinated by books, philosophy and the movies (in her adolescence she adored DeMille and the Fritz Lang of “Siegfried” and rated the appeal of film stars in a notebook), she decided to be a writer at the age of 9 and instinctively rebelled against the dicta-torial constraints of communism; the fact that she had suffered under it for eight years gave her a privileged position among anti-Reds of the ’40s and ’50s, and she always viewed it as the extreme irony that she, the proponent of unfettered individualism, had been raised in what she viewed as the most repressive nation on Earth.

Determined to escape to the West, she succeeded in doing so when she was 21. Leaving her family behind, she made it to New York, Chicago and finally, Los Angeles, where she used a letter of introduction to the powerful DeMille to immediately land work as an extra in his Biblical epic, “The King of Kings”; a succession of extraordinary still photos unmistakably shows Rand in costume in a number of scenes.

This early movie stint also brought her together with fellow extra Frank O’Connor, a rangy, good-looking man whom she married in 1929 — just before her visa would have expired. After a number of desultory jobs, notably as a filing clerk in the RKO costume department, she made a name for herself with the play “The Night of January 16th,” which ran on Broadway in 1935-36. She then penned her “intellectual autobiography” and first novel, “We the Living”; clips from the unauthorized 1942 Italian film version pointedly convey its anti-totalitarian theme, which went unnoticed by the Mussolini regime until pointed out by the Nazis.

Long section devoted to “The Fountainhead” is deservedly detailed and revelatory: Rejected by 12 publishers, this study of an iron-willed architect, Howard Roark, was slow to catch on after its 1943 publication, but built to become one of the sensations of the decade. The vicissitudes in the production of King Vidor’s Warner Bros. film version, starring Rand’s lifelong favorite star, Gary Cooper, are also rewardingly examined, with more fine clips helping out.

So far, so good. But the late ’40s, beginning with her friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, saw the now-famous Rand come to represent a political flashpoint for many ideologues, and pic doesn’t effectively place her in the context of the time vis-a-vis traditional conservatives, many of whom she rejected, and other thinkers.

Even more so, film breezes over her nearly two-decades-long involvement with her chief acolyte/proselytizer Nathaniel Branden; for any details on this exceedingly complex and ultimately desultory mental and physical affair with a man 25 years her junior, for which Rand demanded the consent of her husband and Branden’s wife, one must consult the revealing and insightful Rand biography written by the latter, Barbara Branden.

But even on the most elementary level, pic refuses to analyze Rand’s emotional or personal life; it covers her treatment of her husband, the loyal but ineffectual O’Connor, with kid gloves, and doesn’t note how she always had to be the dominant personality in any situation, be it an intimate relationship or a social occasion with her coterie of young admirers.

All this eventually leads to the impression of a hagiography rather than a true biography, although without the passion of acknowledged partisanship; in addition to the several intellectual disciples interviewed, to good effect, on camera, a few dissenting or disputatious voices would have been welcome.

Snippets from some of the many talkshow appearances she made with the likes of Mike Wallace, Tom Snyder and Phil Donahue before her death in 1982 allow the viewer to further appreciate Rand’s articulate, reasoned and fearless persona, and film is technically solid. At nearly 2-1/2 hours, pic goes on a bit, but that is perfectly in keeping with its subject.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Production

A Strand release of an AG Media Corp. Ltd. presentation in association with Copasetic Inc. Produced, directed, written by Michael Paxton.

With

Narrator: Sharon Gless.
Camera (Foto-Kem color/B&W), Alik Sakharov; editors, Lauren Schaffer, Christopher Earl; music, Jeff Britting; sound, Michael M. Moore; line producer, Ellen Raphael. Reviewed on videocassette, Los Angeles, Feb. 11, 1998. Running time: 144 min.
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