When I read Atlas Shrugged, it seemed to me that it would make a pretty good film (I wanted to adapt it for the stage, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it–though, an opera…). And I still think it would make a good film. My feelings about Rand’s politics aside, I think at its core there’s a strong story that could convey Rand’s message and be dramatically engaging at the same time. But the makers of this trilogy have done just the opposite, sacrificing the story to drive home the message without the carefully crafted context which has allowed the book to remain popular for decades. The result is something akin to eating flour when bread is required.
Between the miscasting, the laughably cheap production, and the mutilation of the story by its adapters, Who is John Galt? brings this misbegotten trilogy to an ignominious end.
For the purposes of this review, I must discuss the ending of both the novel and film.
The film begins as Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) has just crash-landed in the valley (referred to as “Galt’s Gulch” in the novel, but only as “Mulligan’s Valley” (its legal name) in the film) where John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha) and all the great creative minds of American industry, science, and art have found a haven from the “looting” world. Dagny is impressed, but decides that she must return to the real world and try to keep her family’s railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, afloat.
On her return, she discovers that the government has passed the Railroad Unification Act, which nationalizes the railroads and gives the government a vague form of control over the railroad. Disgusted, she runs things as best as she can, taking personal control of a situation when governmental interference has brought operations to a standstill. She sees Galt in the crowd of workers, and they have sex in a storage room.
The American head of state (never referred to as “the President” in book or film), Mr. Thompson (Peter Mackenzie), wants to give a speech about the national economic crisis, which continues to deepen, and wants to Dagny to appear with him during the broadcast to show her support for his policies. She initially goes along, but seconds before the broadcast, walks off in disgust. Just as the speech is about the begin, Galt hijacks the airwaves and delivers a lengthy speech (his face partially obscured by shadows) in which he outlines his philosophy, the crux of which is that the government and people have been living off the accomplishments of the great minds of the world and provide nothing in return but a sense of guilt for their accomplishments, which should be shared on the creators’ terms, but are instead hijacked for the alleged public benefit.
Although the government is merely disgusted by the speech and assumes the public lacks the intellectual capacity to understand it, the public is roused into a fury and demands that Galt be allowed to take power. Dagny tracks down Galt (I forget how she does it in the book, but in the film she just looks in an employee database–way to cover your tacks, John), and he informs her that she has been followed and he’ll soon be arrested, and that she must repudiate him in order to spare both their lives.
Galt is “escorted” to Thompson, who asks him how the crisis can be resolved, inviting Galt to take a position of power and dictate his own terms. Galt refuses, saying that no one should have that level of power. Thompson turns Galt over to Dr. Floyd Ferris (Larry Cedar), of the State Science Institute, who hooks Galt up to “Project F”, a torture device based on the research of Dr. Robert Stadler (Neil Dickson), a former professor of Galt’s who is appalled at what has been done with his work.
Luckily, Dagny has contacted Galt’s friends (somehow), and they mount a raid on the building he’s being held in, conveniently finding him after Project F has broken down and he has been left alone. They escort him into a helicopter and fly off as the lights of New York go out. However, they are optimistic about the future, and a final credit reads:
NO…IT’S THE BEGINNING
To understand just how catastrophically Who is John Galt? fails as an adaptation of the novel, it is necessary to run down the events of the novel’s Part III. It’s been a few years since I read the book and I don’t have a copy available for reference, but I think I can remember most of the relevant details.
Dagny crash-lands in Galt’s Gulch (that’s the name, don’t wear it out), and meets all the strikers (including Francisco D’Anconia) and learns how they live and are free to create and produce and trade in peace and harmony. Dagny, however, insists on returning to New York and continuing the fight. Galt flies her back to civilization, blindfolding her so that she may not return without permission. This, the film mostly gets across, albeit in truncated form.
Meanwhile, Hank Rearden (Rob Morrow) is dealing with the dissolution of his marriage and the government’s interference with his steel mills (and their obstruction of his production of his own alloy, Rearden Metal). A government watchdog nicknamed “the wet-nurse” is assigned to keep an eye on Rearden, and when government agents (“goons”) come to cause trouble at the mill (why, I don’t recall), the wet-nurse is killed (having taken Rearden’s side) and Rearden’s workers fight off the goons; D’Anconia, who has secretly been working for Rearden, arrives and, as I recall, makes the official pitch to Rearden.
None of this is in the film. Rearden is heard on the phone briefly (after having joined Galt), and maybe he appears fleetingly in the climax, but he’s barely in the film at all. Since he played a major part in the first two films, his absence here is pretty inexcusable.
Meanwhile, James Taggart’s marriage to shopgirl Cherryl Brooks (Jan Nikolaisen) collapses; he takes credit for Dagny’s accomplishments and initially impresses Cherryl as being a great man. She learns the truth one night (when he just finalized the Railroad Unification Act, I believe), and when she is insufficiently impressed by his accomplishments, she leaves to apologize to Dagny (whom she had previously scorned), and returns home to find Taggart in the arms of Rearden’s wife, Lillian (who is nowhere to be found in this entry). Taggart tells her off, and she, in horror, runs through the streets, her sense of self and morality totally in tatters. Confronted by a social worker who assumes she is merely a runaway, she screams “Not your world!” and throws herself into the river.
Cherryl appears in a brief sequence summing up her fate (we see her apologize to Dagny, but it’s nothing like the involved confession of the novel), with most of the information given over to the narrator (Jeff Yagher, I believe).
Anyway, things happen, Dagny and Galt have their secret hook-up (I don’t really remember this part of the novel), and finally, Galt hijacks Mr. Thompson’s planned speech and gives his own (I’ll get to the handling of the speech later), and Dagny finds Galt and he is “escorted” to meet Mr. Thompson. And it’s here where the film really begins to go to pieces.
As in the film, Galt is offered the opportunity to basically direct the nation’s economy, and flatly declines, saying that this kind of control must be dissolved. But where as in the film he’s immediately whisked off to be tortured, in the novel he is kept in a hotel suite for some time, and Dr. Stadler (a former professor of Galt’s) goes to see him, but on looking him in the eyes breaks down, insists that he had no choice but to co-operate with the government and the State Science Institute, and when Galt states otherwise, Stadler rushes from the room. An allusion to their old connection remains in the film, but it has none of the original weight.
Galt is finally told by Wesley Mouch (Louis Herthum in the film) that he will attend a public event where Thompson will attempt to rally the nation and Galt, who has become popular with the public, will give the appearance of supporting and aiding Thompson in his efforts to resolve the economic crisis. Galt complies, but to ensure his cooperation, a bodyguard presses a concealed pistol into his back. Dagny attends the event in disgust, openly wondering how anyone can look at the faces of Thompson and his cohorts after having seen Galt’s face (Rand’s obsession with physical appearance–more on that later) and not realize that Galt is the real deal.
Thompson continues to espouse an altruistic “brother’s keeper” agenda, and when he turns the audiences’ (both in person and on television and radio) attention to Galt, Galt leaps up, exposing the bodyguard’s gun, and yells “Get the hell out of my way!” Stadler hears this on the radio as he is speeding towards Iowa, where a Project X (as project F is called in the book) installation has been set up. The country is gradually devolving into anarchic chaos, but government bigwig Cuffy Meigs (Tony Denison) has assumed power over a band of followers, and has taken control of the installation, though neither he nor any of his cronies know how to operate the machine.
Stadler argues with the drunken, belligerent Meigs, and they end up activating the machine–which, in the novel, is a device which uses directed sound waves to cause destruction–and causing it to, essentially, implode, causing a ring of destruction for miles which kills thousands of people and destroys the Taggart Bridge, cutting off a major source of resources for the East Coast.
Meanwhile, Galt is taken to a secret location to be tortured. As this is done (and the film retains a darkly humorous moment where the torture machine breaks down and Galt immediately explains how it can be fixed), James Taggart has a horrid moment of clarity, realizing how right Galt is and how wrong he has been, which causes him to have a complete nervous breakdown. He is taken away, I believe, as Dagny and the other strikers arrive. They set Galt free and begin flying back to the Gulch. As they pass over New York, the city’s lights go out, which horrifies Dagny (Galt tells her not to look).
Finally, back in the Gulch, we see the strikers making plans for the future–building new supply lines, new businesses, in general rebuilding the world. Galt and Dagny sit on a mountainside, and he declares that the strike has ended and “We are going back to the world.” He then traces the sign of the dollar over the Earth.
Now, the film hacks the last six paragraphs to absolute bits. Gone is Galt’s status as a government puppet or his subversion of the event. Gone is Stadler’s final, tragic end; he appears in the film to condemn project F (and the film conflates Project X, the weapon of sound-wave-based destruction, with the torture device used on Galt, which I’m pretty sure uses current) and to condemn it again as Galt is being tortured. Also gone is the scene where Project X is demonstrated (one of the more haunting scenes in the book) by destroying a model farm, including a flock of goats Stadler is watching appreciatively.
Gone is the full sense of James Taggart’s revelation; in the film he refuses to let Galt “win”, but beyond flying into a rage he doesn’t seem to have the crushing breakdown as he did in the novel. Gone is the reason for the Taggart Bridge collapsing; in the film, Dagny repeatedly denies that this could ever happen, but it eventually does, for no reason, and the film just moves on. Gone is her sense of distress at the lights of New York going out; instead, it’s treated almost as a moment of triumph for the strikers.
Oh, and the tragedy of Eddie Willers (Dominic Daniel) is gone; in the book, we learn of his long-unrequited love for Dagny and see him lost, alone in the wilderness, next to a train that will not run and that he cannot make run. He’s in the film for maybe two scenes.
And gone are the final moments of promise and renewal in the Gulch, and gone is Galt’s final proclamation and his final tracing of the sign of the dollar. We get a quote from Galt (and not an especially memorable one) and the ridiculously cheesy final credit. I own that this is a poor substitute.
“Poor substitute” is a fitting description for Who is John Galt?, though, since it does not come close to the novel. That’s not to say the novel is a masterpiece of the literary art; it’s not. It’s a melodramatic, often over-the-top tome; one scene at the end, of course omitted from the film, features a judge who had joined with Galt literally re-writing the Constitution and adding an amendment guaranteeing that no law will “restrict the freedom of trade”. Whether Rand meant for this to be taken seriously (since a judge, even a Supreme Court judge, wouldn’t be legally able to do this) or if indeed she had by this point in the writing of the novel become so cocooned within her circle of acolytes that she thought it reasonable (as her then-confidante Nathaniel Branden suggested in his book My Years with Ayn Rand).
And the b0ok is often morally a bit leery; one passage involves a train destroyed after an impatient, influential passenger orders that it proceed without delay, and the only engine available–a coal-burning steam engine–is used to convey it through a lengthy tunnel, in which all the passengers and all save one of the crew suffocate. As the train heads into the tunnel, Rand prefaces a description of the other passengers by saying:
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.
I found the quote here; it’s followed by the full description of the passengers, all of whom, shall we say, fall short of Rand’s ideal; the worst is arguably reserved for this fellow:
The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.
Admittedly, this passage accounts for 2 or 3 pages in a very long book–but they are but a small sampling of the blunter ways in which Rand communicates what she feels is good or bad. And these are probably the most actively troubling sections in the book, but they also make one wonder just how literally Rand meant for us to take every part of the book.
But at the same time, the core story is a compelling one. If it’s founded on a somewhat dicey philosophy–one which is just as vulnerable to the vagaries of human nature as the socialism it abhors–Rand at the same time keeps one reading, wondering what the answer to the book’s central question (you get one guess) is, and then, when this perfect being appears, what’ll happen when he openly stands against the world. Basically, there’s a story worth telling–and worth filming–at the core of Rand’s epic. And it hasn’t been so widely read for so many years just because people liked the message. Rand’s skills as a storyteller are not to be dismissed.
But the films…oh, God, these films…do not do the story justice. From the beginning, they’ve focused on the ideology, on speeches and meetings and fake news reports, all meant to convey the idea that Oh my God, this is basically what’s going on now, oh my God (oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the irony of the conservative embrace of the thoroughly atheist Rand), and all of them, for my money, have been wholly unconvincing.
From my review of the first film:
But the script, by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole, is a convoluted mess, hurtling from meeting to meeting with little opportunity given for the story to breathe, while saddling the actors with clunky dialogue that emphasizes exposition over any real characterization.
And the attempt to update the film to 2016 (as opposed to the quasi-50s setting of the original book) is largely bungled, and largely motivated by the small budget, reputedly around $15 million. And if there’s a story that doesn’t hold up well to the cheap treatment, it’s ATLAS SHRUGGED.
Shock of shocks, almost everything I said there applies to this film.
And for the second film:
PART I wasn’t good, but PART II shows just how much worse it is from the very first moments of terrible CGI. An effort is made to communicate Rand’s murky, inconsistent philosophy, but the more interesting details of the actual narrative are mostly lost amidst a castful of lazy performances (it was recast entirely, to no avail), John Putch’s lifeless direction, and the obvious cheapness. It’s hard to believe that the film could win over the unconverted, but PART III is apparently on its way…
Notice a trend of any kind? The three films together cost (taking the figures cited on Wikipedia) about $35 million (if Part I is supposed to have actually cost $20 million), of which only $5 million was spent on Part III, and it shows (more on that in a moment). Even setting the material in the near future rather than the quasi-50s setting of the book doesn’t provide enough breathing room to make these films look good. None of them do. None of them capture anything like the breadth of the book.
Admittedly, Part II might be the weakest of three, by virtue of its terrible acting (Parts I and III are at least passable in that regard), but this has still been an enormous waste of time and resources, a film which likely won exactly 0 converts to the cause and which must have embarrassed many of the faithful; I have seen defences of the films, but they have not convinced me that they were not written in desperation. Although each entry in the series has had a different cast and a different director, producer John Aglialoro has been the constant factor of the series, and I hope it was worth it for him. I cannot say it was worth it for me–though this may be the most sheerly morbidly fascinating franchise out there.
But, let’s focus on some positives, or near-positives, shall we? Namely, the acting, which is admittedly not terrible (I’ve yet to see a real showcase for terrible acting this year).
Kristoffer Polaha is not a good casting choice as John Galt. For a man who’s supposedly almost superhumanly intelligent and capable, for a man who literally intends to “stop the motor of the world”, and for a man described as being physically unimposing (one of his fellow workers at the auto plant recalls “any of us could’ve snapped his neck”), if handsome (because he’s an Ayn Rand hero), Polaha comes across as too ordinary, too normal, too suburban-dad, average-Joe, blue-collar one-of-the-guys ordinary. I just never believed that he could be capable of what Galt does.
Galt is a hard role to cast; who’d be better? I actually think DiCaprio could do it. He looks sort of like how I picture Galt to look, especially now that he’s mostly grown out of his baby-face. In any case, Polaha doesn’t really do a bad job, per se; he delivers his lines relatively naturally, and displays a solid control of the acting craft. But he’s simply wrong for the role. He never suggests the mold-breaker, the revolutionary, the great spirit that is Galt.
Laura Regan’s Dagny is better cast (though she’s mousier than I think Dagny should be), but she too, despite her technical proficiency, never really brings the role to life. She’s perfectly adequate, especially given the circumstances, but the ambition and romanticism of Dagny never really come through. I was thinking about who would be a good choice for Dagny–in fact, I came up with my own all-star cast, which I’ll append at the end–and it seemed to me Jessica Chastain could do it. She looks right, and she definitely has the acting chops.
Probably the worst miscasting is Joaquim de Almeida as D’Anconia. D’Anconia’s supposed to be a playboy, an aristocratic scion–de Almeida looks like somebody’s father. He’s a perfectly good actor, and maybe 20 years ago would’ve fit the role well, but at 57, he’s just too old. And he doesn’t get a whole lot to do, so the inclusion of the character feels like a bit of a waste.
The villains come off a little better. Greg Germann is a properly weaselly James Taggart, and Larry Cedar’s Floyd Ferris is likewise a respectable worm. Peter Mackenzie’s Thompson is properly blustery. Neil Dickson tries to bring a little dignity to the role of Stadler, and while he doesn’t get enough time to really make anything out of the role (had the full scope of the character been retained, he could’ve been excellent), I give him credit for trying.
Oh, I should mention Stephen Tobolowsky’s small role as Dr. Akston. He seems to be channeling Wallace Shawn here and having a good time–I’d even say he’s being a touch subversive with his broad delivery of some lines–so good for him. Eric Allan Kramer’s Ragnar Danneskjöld is strange, though. He seems…tightly wound, shall we say?
That’s about all I’ve got for the cast. They do fine. Fine enough. The film is so bad that it really doesn’t matter, but at least they did their part.
I’ve gone into pretty gory detail as to why the script–credited to director J. James Manera, producer Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow–is a disaster. How much it mangles the story, how heavily it pushes the message (and in doing so, basically ruins any chance the film has of changing anyone’s mind), how much of a mess it is in every way. I think I’ve made my case against it enough. The defense rests. In this regard.
Manera’s direction is pretty damnably flat. I’d point out that he didn’t have a whole lot to work with, but the low budget alone isn’t an excuse–Upstream Color was reputedly made for 1/50th of Part III‘s budget, and it’s a marvelously ingenious film. But Manera as a director has no imagination; the staging is often cluttered–one party scene early on is really badly blocked–the pacing is jerky, the imagery is flat…it’s a very boring effort on his part, and the budget alone can’t be entirely to blame.
Oh, and I forgot to mention how goofy the Dagny-Galt sex scene is. It’s prudishly staged and shot with all the slow-mo writhing anti-eroticism you’d expect. Someone behind me in the theater grumbled about the insertion of a love story into the material; if they’d known that there was not only sex in the book, but a hell of a lot of it¹
Gale Tattersall’s blah cinematography doesn’t help matters, though a great deal of the film is made up of stock footage. Galt’s speech is shot, not in complete darkness (as in the novel), but initially in darkness and with his face slowly being illuminated, though never fully; he’s always shadowed enough that you can’t quite make out his features. It looks kind of silly, though the shots of fawning listeners are even sillier. But most of the film just looks like it was made for cable TV.
Setting the film in the present day, rather than the novel’s setting of a slightly modified 50s, was an artistic mistake; as with many attempts to do Shakespeare in modern dress (the only time I’ll compare Rand and Shakespeare), in trying to make the material seem more modern and natural, it comes off as more stilted and archaic. Now, I understand that money was a major factor here, but the production design is still extremely bland and robs the material of a lot of visual impact.
Galt’s Gulch looks like any suburban co-op; the marketplace could be any farmer’s market, anywhere, and the houses, supposedly built by the country’s great minds (most of whom are very rich), are completely anonymous. The offices of Taggart Transcontinental could be anywhere; the government installation where Galt is tortured is just a warehouse (arguably the most laughably inadequate of the film’s locales), and whereas in the novel Galt is, I believe, strapped to a table for his torture, here he’s stripped shirtless, tied to a grate (which some felt creates crucifixion imagery), and has a black collar of some kind fastened around his neck.
I can’t at the moment remember if electrodes or clips or whatever are hooked up to his nipples, but the overall effect is one of unintentional (I hope) kink, and Polaha’s rather unimpressive physique makes the scene all the more baffling.
The visual effects are chintzy (the Taggart Bridge is insanely fake-looking); Elia Cmiral’s music is inappropriately grandiose, possibly intending to evoke the work of Richard Halley, who in the novel is Dagny’s favorite composer and another of Galt’s followers–he isn’t in the film. Contrasted against the cheap, lazy filmmaking, it seems even more ridiculous than it already is. Tony Ciccone’s editing is pretty damned awful, too. Need I say more? No.
I’ve expounded almost 4,300 words in discussing this misbegotten film, but given Rand’s own verbosity, I think it’s only fitting. I won’t discourage anyone from reading the novel (though don’t do so lightly), but don’t, I beg of you, look to the film as a substitute for it. So much of the story and the characters are lost, so much of the reason the book was embraced at all is lost, that you will be doing yourself an outright disservice if you watch these films for that reason.
On the other hand, if you watch these films to see the most baffling, unjustified, underfed and incoherent trilogy in film history, you’ll have a field day. It’s a fascinating look at how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
¹”Russell Kirk, the conservative philosopher, groused that people read her novels ‘for the fornicating bits.'” (Source)
²I suppose I should mention the cameos from Ron Paul, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. There, I mentioned them.
What’s up with Beck’s glasses?
³This list of characters was a great help in refreshing my memory of the novel.
As promised, here is my proposed all-star cast:
Dagny: Jessica Chastain
Galt: Leonardo DiCaprio
Rearden: Chiwetel Ejiofor
James Taggart: Guy Pearce
Cherryl Brooks/Taggart: Alicia Vikander
D’Anconia: Oscar Isaac
Eddie Willers: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Lillian Rearden: Julia Roberts
Dr. Floyd Ferris: Jared Harris
Dr. Robert Stadler: Donald Sutherland
Ellis Wyatt: Matthew McConaughey
Wesley Mouch: Oliver Platt
Mr. Thompson: Jon Voight
Ragnar Danneskjold: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Cuffy Meigs: Gary Oldman