As a movie critic, you know you are living in interesting times when you happen to review, in the same week, two films that promote with almost embarrassing earnestness diametrically opposed views of what creates a prosperous society.
Neither movie is especially well-executed, but here's one thing we can cheer-they are about something. Boldly about something. And even if that something comes in low-budget, somewhat clumsy packages, they're far more engaging than the same old polished hectoring carried out by the likes of Sean Penn and George Clooney (did anybody see that Valerie Plame movie?).
For the Ayn Rand devotees paling at the 8 percent critics' rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, let's clear one thing up. The movie version of Atlas Shrugged (rated PG-13 for one unnecessary and comparatively mild sex scene) is not that bad. It's not that good either, but it is, in its own schmaltzy, B-movie sort of way, highly entertaining.
In this story set five years into the future, the economy is in the toilet and the Dow has taken a deep-sea dive. In this America, out-of-work executives hang out on street corners wearing sandwich-board copies of their resumés, and politicians demand ever-increasing contributions from the few remaining corporations that show a profit (indeed profits beyond a certain level along with owning more than one company and firing employees are outlawed). Gas prices have risen so high, air and car travel are impractical and high-speed rail once again dominates as the conveyance of choice.
This should make railroad heiress Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) happy. But with her drive, Dagny defies her brother's crony-capitalist approach of chumming up to Washington lobbyists and decides to form a partnership with like-minded titan-of-industry Hank Reardon (Grant Bowler).
Hank has developed a metal lighter and stronger than steel, and together he and Dagny hold the promise of revolutionizing nearly every major industry in the world. That promise is threatened when leading politicians enact legislation to limit Reardon steel's expansion and hamstring Dagny's innovations. When Hank and Dagny refuse to back down, government-funded scientists are dispatched to lodge trumped-up charges to sway public opinion against the new alloy and union thugs threaten to bar their members from accepting work on the new railway.
Most troubling for the pair, however, is the fact that their best employees and colleagues keep disappearing with the same, mysterious question on their lips: "Who is John Galt?" Dagny and Hank don't find the answer to the question in this installment, which is only the first of a projected three, but the mystery keeps the story chugging along nicely even when didactic dialogue threatens to make it less of a movie and more of a lecture.
The very nature of Atlas Shrugged-turning on its head all the typical clichés of who's a hero and who's a villain and its refreshing honesty about the way Washington works-gives it a certain liberating energy. However, even the most devoted of Rand devotees may experience a niggling uneasiness when they see their heroes of self-interest played out large and in living color.
There's no escaping that there's something unattractive about the egotistical, ambitious Hank and off-putting about the determined, but amoral Dagny. Neither bat an eye at embarking on an affair because Reardon's wife is one of those nonproductive leechers and therefore doesn't matter much in Rand's economy. You see, the ridiculous woman throws dinner parties instead of running a company and has the backward view that her wedding anniversary should take precedence over her husband's work. How pathetic that she should be an eye (or an ear or an arm) when all the truly important people are hands-hands who, apparently, need no other body parts to function.
At the end of the day, while Rand's acolytes may have more logic and the Penn-Clooney-Shadyac collective may have a better sense of artistry, both sides present woefully insufficient ideologies.