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Don’t shrug off ‘Atlas Shrugged’

It can be painful to anticipate seeing the film version of a book you enjoy — especially a “difficult” book that requires a lot of massaging to make it ready for the silver screen. The pain level can only be exacerbated when the movie is made on a small budget by an acolyte of the book who may have a different vision than you, or even lack the savvy and resources to carry the project through in a professional way. So, when my buddy told me that Atlas Shrugged was coming to Sedona, I … well … shrugged and told myself that, if it sucked, at least we’d grab a few drinks after the showing.

I’m happy to say that Atlas Shrugged is a good movie. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s professionally done, and does credit to the book while remaining watchable. The cinematography isn’t just Hollywood-worthy, it’s beautiful. The story builds at a good pace and it grabbed my attention — perhaps a testimony to the moviemakers’ skill in trimming down some of Ayn Rand’s excesses without losing the message and urgency of the book. Also the characters struck me as more human and accessible than their printed-page versions, both in their motivations and their conduct — that’s important not just for the heroes, but for the villains, who I found less cardboard-y on screen than in the book.

The feel of a crumbling America propped up by a dwindling class of producers is well-captured by backdrops to scenes, newscasts and conversations among the characters

Now, the weaknesses… Of course, it’s didactic. Even shorn of a few of Rand’s beat-it-to-death hammer-blows, Atlas Shrugged remains a political story, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The audience started tittering after a few repetitions of “who is John Galt?” But that may be a product of the cultural familiarity that the phrase has acquired — the giggles died down after a while. I know that I grew more comfortable with the phrase as an expression of fatalistic resignation in the movie’s near-future setting.

The acting, while generally good, had a few week spots. Taylor Schilling comes off a bit lightweight and wooden as Dagny Taggart. I thought Grant Bowler was good as Hank Rearden, but my buddy thought he had an off scene or two before hitting his stride. The rest of the cast is heavily salted with familiar Hollywood character actors who do an excellent job of projecting despairing good or weaselly evil, as required. Michael O’Keefe pops up, very nicely, in the small role of Hugh Akston. By and large, the cast fills out the characters’ presence in a way that Rand’s writing sometimes didn’t.

And sometimes, there was no getting past Rand’s dialogue. Let’s face it, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling book because of the story she told, not so much because of the dialogue.

But let me sum it up this way: Atlas Shrugged is better and more enjoyable (a key point!) than most Nicolas Cage movies, at a fraction of the budget.

Sadly, Atlas Shrugged didn’t come to Sedona as a regular booking. It was a special one-night event sponsored by the Sedona Tea Party, and advertised largely through the group’s email list. Even so, 115 people turned out. Although you can probably expect a healthy future of DVD and streaming-video rentals for the flick, the movie seems to have lost its initial steam, and special showings like this are mostly going to preach to the choir.

Speaking of choir … This was the first Tea Party even I’ve attended, and yes, the gathering did include a prayer, as well as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, the president of the local group, a local businesswoman, was careful to remain non-partisan in her political statements, and inclusive in her religious ones — to the point of acknowledging alternative and non-traditional views, and describing her own views as such. She also claimed to have read Atlas Shrugged about two dozen times.

I walked away with the impression that the local Tea Party group is older (at 45, I was on the youngish side in the room) and generally conservative, but with a strong libertarian presence. The age range may be an artifact of Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then die. And the libertarian tone is, happily, to be expected in this state, nativist convulsions not withstanding.

So, if you get a chance, go see Atlas Shrugged. And don’t see it as a chore or a duty, but as a movie you might well enjoy. And keep your fingers crossed for parts 2 and 3.

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1 Comment

  • “Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then dieā€¦”

    Ha! You’re on a roll, J. D.!

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