It’s tempting to snipe that the argument of Atlas Shrugged Part II—that the genius of an unregulated free market results in the greatest of all greater goods—is somewhat undone by the chintziness of Atlas Shrugged Part II, because, seriously, if this is the best promotion of itself that the free market can manage, it really would benefit from the help of a Ministry of Culture or something.
Toward the end of the movie, there’s a shot meant to evoke the wonder of what unfettered capitalism can accomplish: a sleek railroad suspension bridge arcing high over some gorge in the Colorado Rockies, a glistening archway a-twinkle at the base. But the eye rebels against it. The computer effects are plasticky, clearly superimposed, lacking either photo-realism or matte-painting grandeur. It almost fits the story we’ve been watching, about what would happen if the “best and brightest” in the public sphere were to stop toiling on behalf of a thieving government and a shiftless public. Here it looks like it’s the heads of the special effects field who abandoned the world, and the filmmakers had to settle for whatever they could get whipped up at the genius bar.
Most of the movie at least looks like a movie, or a least a modestly budgeted TV drama. There’s a sheen of muted blues and grays meant to suggest the cities of the future, plus a couple of crane shots, a surprisingly engaging jet chase, more cleavage than you might expect, and committed performances from the leads, especially Samantha Mathis, who’s all stricken gumption as one of those 21st-century railroad tycoons you’re always hearing about. But it’s doubtful any of that is enough to gel-cap the poison pill of Ayn Rand’s objectivistism into something easily swallowed by any but the Rand faithful.
Imagine if the elves were leaving Middle Earth just to stick it to those lazy hobbits. Imagine It’s a Wonderful Life where it’s old man Potter who wished he’d never existed, mainly because he found tax rates and federal regulation too onerous. And imagine that one day he “goes Galt”: he up and vanishes but not before putting his Bedford Falls properties to the torch, and then that the rest of the movie is about the dopes he left behind realizing that they can’t possibly continue to have a society without him.
In short, the story is a hard sell, and nobody involved has done the imaginative work to apply Rand’s steel-and-railroads world to today’s of tech and finance. The movie opens with many titans of industry already having left these shores. Then it follows the efforts of three major companies to survive in a post-greatness world. They face a vague economic crisis where gas is $40 a gallon and where the government—represented by men named Mouch and Small, which would strike goddamn Dickens as too on-the-nose—has taken to seizing the patents of innovators, outlawing the firing of employees, and mandating that everyone must get their “fair share” of whatever America’s first-class fliers produce.
Such government meddling, we’re told, interferes with the “perfect” and “natural” balance of mutual self-interest, a self-interest that makes titans of industry rich but also turns “the motor of the world”—and employs millions. In brisk, undistinguished scenes in offices and hotel rooms, we get the bones of an Econ 101 essay question: The copper mine needs steel to shore up its tunnels. The steel company needs railroads to ship its steel. The railroad needs steel to lay its tracks. What happens when government goons go all eminent domain on the steel?
Why, the system breaks down, and soon the copper magnate has no choice but to blow up his own mines and exit this world. Meanwhile, that glorious fake-y railroad bridge gets looted by the government for its raw materials, and the railroad lady—the company’s chief operating officer—has a go at vanishing herself, storming out to a country shack where we’re treated to out-of-nowhere scenes of her throwing away furniture. But, hilariously, her first night off, a train breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and without her guidance, nobody at the entire company has any idea how to fix it. Why would the COO handle routine engine failure? A couple of 20-year-old doofuses dressed like NBC pages do what they can, but they quickly turn one dumb mechanical problem into what we’re told is the worst rail accident in American history. (It’s certainly the most confusingly filmed.)
In interviews, producer Harmon Kaslow has called this film “an opportunity for swing voters to see what’s going on back in D.C. and help activate them to vote President Obama out of office.” The analogy to today is imperfect. Randland runs entirely on trains, there’s a subplot about a near-magic energy source straight out of the Iron Man movies, and President Obama has never tried to steal all the patents held by American companies or told them that they aren’t allowed to make more money than they did last year.
The analogy’s greatest failing lies in the film’s portrayal of today’s captains of industry. Yes, it would be bad news for America if our great tycoons’ beautiful railroad bridges were torn down for scrap or if factory owners like the movie’s Henry Rearden (growly ol’ Jason Beghe) were to shut down operations. But there are no railroad tycoons, and the great host of infrastructure projects have always been planned and paid for the government itself, which routinely gets over-billed by the private contractors it hires, and, Christ, all those factories closed years ago anyway. Atlas Shrugged promises that working Americans would suffer greatly if our millionaires and billionaires were to go Galt—but if you’ve driven through the rust belt in the past 30 years, you know that in all the ways that matter they already have.