True confessions: Dagny Taggart is the only fictional character I ever fell in love with — or at least, when reading the first third of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged some two decades ago, I was so smitten with the heroine that I wished somebody like her would show up in real life. All of which explains how high was the hurdle standing in the way of the movie version of Atlas Shrugged if it wanted me to “buy in” to its representation of the novel so iconic for individualists everywhere. To a surprising degree, the new movie, which opens at theatres April 15, cleared that hurdle. What’s so disturbing, though, is that the frightening dystopia it portrays seems all too real a possibility in today’s Obamaworld.
First, let’s dispense with the mini-review of the movie. Produced by Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro and directed by Paul Johansson, the movie — part one of three — stays remarkably faithful to Rand’s script while moving it more than half a century forward, to an eerily believable 2016. Dagny Taggart still runs a railroad with her rotten brother James, and the railroad still is plausibly depicted as such an integral part of the national economy that major newscasts would breathlessly report on its major initiatives. All the “moochers” and the influence peddlers are out in full force as well, making their evil deals and abusing their ill-gotten powers.
Rand fans may hate me for saying so, but only the first third or so of the novel itself is gripping; after that, it’s tedious and not-believable, and at places its philosophy borders on the monstrous. The good news is that with this movie covering only part one, it captures by far the best portion of the story. Better still, it captures it well — entertainingly, with good pace. The breadth and scope of the stakes are well explained; the scenes are big and lush as Rand would have wanted, except for just those times when Rand strove to create stifling intimacy. And actress Taylor Schilling does a more than passable job at inhabiting heroine Dagny — apart from about three or four quick scenes where her facial expressions embarrassingly miss the mark, a flaw probably correctable if a larger budget had allowed for more “takes” on each scene. Schilling is sleek, determined, and an alluring blend of indomitability and emotional semi-vulnerability.
One big problem: It’s almost impossible to have the novel’s “big reveal,” its essential secret that in the book isn’t really explained until far later in the story, make much sense within the “part one” covered by this current film. The movie’s ending really isn’t satisfying, therefore, and is probably even less so for someone who hasn’t read the book. All that said, though, the movie is largely a triumph. And the world it shows us is the one we conservatives right now, right here, are fighting to ward off.
Rand’s world is one in which the government’s power is virtually limitless. There’s the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule” and the “Equalization of Opportunity Bill.” There is a law forbidding any one person from owning more than one company. There’s a law requiring economically well-off states (in this case, Colorado) to support poor ones. There are unions going on strike and making threats; a government-run institute of science with vast powers; confiscatory taxation and flat-out seizures of private industry and private property. It takes no great insight to see in Atlas Shrugged previews of TARP and the automobile company takeover (which still to me seems flat-out illegal) and so many Obama initiatives. (See, for instance, this excellent column by Stephen Moore.) Today, as in Rand’s world, virtually everything productive is hampered; everything original is harnessed; everything successful is looted. Offshore drilling is brought to a standstill; oil shale goes undeveloped; nuclear waste depositories aren’t allowed to be used; coal-burning plants are regulated with almost unreachable emissions limits; consumer products are subjected to prohibitively expensive testing for nonexistent lead and other mythical dangers.
The Justice Department is a den of lawlessness. Inspectors general in several departments are abused. The administration is found in contempt of court and still ignores a judge’s order on drilling, and ignores a judge’s order on Obamacare, and refuses to defend the constitutionality of a law (the Defense of Marriage Act) which, the administration even admits, has overwhelming precedent on its side. Selective compliance with official Freedom of Information requests. Ignoring lawful subpoenas from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Intruding into local schoolyards on jihads against heterosexual “bullies.” Repeatedly imposing new environmental regulations without congressional authority. On and on the abuses go. This is a regime in which constitutional limits are no object; it will do whatever it thinks it can get away with, and even do some things it isn’t sure it can get away with but is willing to risk trying.
This is power based not on merit or achievement, but enforced (in effect) at the point of a gun — or, when it can’t use government controls, then by ginning up mobs of union goons and other assorted thugs. And it’s exactly the sort of scenario — in kind, if not yet in degree — brought to life in both the book and movie of Atlas Shrugged. It is not much of a stretch, not much at all, to see in today’s administration the belief, outlined with disgust by Rand, that “it was society’s duty to see that no competitor ever rose beyond the range of anybody who wanted to compete with him.” It is not a stretch to see Obama create a “Bureau of Economic Planning and National Resources.” On the other hand, as Michael Barone just noted is true in our age as well, the states that thrive in Rand’s land as in our own are those where “they don’t even have a modern government.… It does nothing — outside of keeping law courts and a police department. It doesn’t do anything for the people. I don’t see why all our best companies want to run there.”
Of course we conservatives know that a state with a limited government is a state to which people will flock. We know that freedom, not state planning, leads to prosperity and fulfillment (or at least the best chances thereto). We know that “entitlement” is the precursor of laziness, and of failure, while the converse — market rewards for success — breeds a stronger society.
And we know that the Dagny Taggarts of the world are the ones who bear the world’s weight, while the Obamites suck the lifeblood from us. Dagny may be merely fictional, but she’s still worth being smitten by. Smitten by, and emulated. And that means resisting the looters in the White House, through every legal means, with every fiber of our being.
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