A monument of American literature is shaved down to a spindly toothpick of a movie in “Atlas Shrugged,” a project that reportedly once caught the eye of Angelina Jolie, Faye Dunaway and Clint Eastwood. Part one of a trilogy that may never see completion, this hasty, low-budget adaptation would have Ayn Rand spinning in her grave, considering how it violates the author’s philosophy by allowing opportunists to exploit another’s creative achievement — in this case, hers. Targeting roughly 200 screens, pic goes out hitched to a grassroots marketing campaign, hoping to break-even via by-popular-demand bookings and potential Tea Party support.
Rather than lose the rights to Rand’s novel, producer John Aglialoro enlisted co-writer Brian Patrick O’Toole, dashed off a screenplay and rushed the project into production. Made with the permission but not the participation of the Rand estate, the result cuts corners in every respect. Rather than try to condense everything into a tight, two-hour feature, Aglialoro and fellow producer Harmon Kaslow tackle the book’s first third only, hiring relatively inexperienced helmer Paul Johansson (originally tapped to play John Galt, the shadowy, trenchcoat-wearing figure seen cornering billionaires in back alleys) to deliver their vision after Stephen Polk was fired.
Imagining what might happen if the world’s thought leaders suddenly went on strike, leaving the hangers-on to fend for themselves, Rand’s epic undertaking actually subdivides nicely, considering the author herself organized “Atlas Shrugged” into three 10-chapter parts. This opening segment lays out a decidedly uncinematic economic scenario in which government regulators pick at the achievements of leading industrialists, citing the public’s best interest, as they undermine the progress of society’s most successful entrepreneurs with anti-competition and spread-the-wealth statutes.
With neither the time nor the budget to find appropriate matches to play the political and big-business titans who populate the plot, Aglialoro settled for an ensemble of unfamiliar thesps, the most recognizable of whom are character actors Michael Lerner and Jon Polito (both of “Barton Fink” fame). Rand fans have spent decades fantasy-casting the role of Dagny Taggart, the tough-as-nails railroad tycoon who serves as “Atlas Shrugged’s” primary earth mover, only to see her remade as a generic business-suit Barbie, unassertively played by pretty blonde TV actress Taylor Schilling (NBC’s “Mercy”).
At its core, “Atlas Shrugged” is a romance between Dagny and fellow business leader Henry “Hank” Rearden (Grant Bowler), whose visionary formula for a stronger, lighter form of steel promises to transform the nation’s economy. While their shared passion — for one another, for innovation, for winning — gives the story an intimate focus, Hank’s metal and Dagny’s rails also form the backbone of a big-picture view of American industry, something beyond the scope of the film’s limited budget.
Since boardroom chats and business dinners are more affordable to shoot than flashbacks and setpieces, “Atlas Shrugged” becomes a series of polite policy conversations interrupted by Fox News-style updates whenever exposition is called for, as in a long prologue that unnecessarily explains why a story re-set in 2016 still relies so heavily on railroad travel. But even this stuffy, shut-in approach would be reasonable if only the dialogue crackled and the tempers flared from time to time, as they do on nearly every one of Rand’s 1,200 pages. The film’s rare exception, a faceoff between Dagny and playboy Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia), makes little sense without the ex-lovers’ torrid backstory.
The impecunious producers do manage a few key railroad-rebuilding exteriors and wisely commission visual effects for the new line’s virgin run, as well as the film’s climactic oil-well fires. But what the film really needs is suspense, not spectacle — some indication of where the story is headed, so auds have reason to engage. Even Rand’s iconic question, “Who is John Galt?” can’t supply much mystery to a plot in which the mysterious character’s presence is barely felt.
More ambitious sound design and score, rather than the low-key filler from composer Elia Cmiral and music supervisor Steve Weisberg, might have significantly boosted the pic’s limited scale. For the record, the onscreen title reads “Atlas Shrugged,” sans any “Part I” delineation.