Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Atlas Shrugged" and "The Passion of the Christ"

No dear friends, I haven't walked the Ayn Rand plank.  I'm not going to write a blog post comparing the book "Atlas Shrugged" and the life of Jesus.

What I wish to do is to discuss the movie "Atlas Shrugged" in comparison to the movie version of Jesus' life made by Mel Gibson in 2004.  Stay with me for a bit on this.  I promise that later in the post, I'll do a bit of a review of "Atlas Shrugged".

When I walked out of the the theater after having watched "The Passion of The Christ", I was greatly moved.  The utter brutality, meted out upon a figure of perfection, blamelessness and sin-lessness drove home for me the importance of a message I already grasped and in which I already believed.  I remember talking with my friend Dave (who had gone to the movie with me) and putting forth the notion that the movie would be very difficult to dispassionately review.

A believer seeing "The Passion of the Christ" could not help but be moved, could not help but dive deeply into one's own spirituality and religiosity, could not help but walk out of the theater not thinking that they had just watched a movie--but that they had just had an experience.  Someone in this condition could not possibly write a fair and dispassionate review of the movie--I knew then that I could not that night--and to this day, I would be unable to.

To the unbeliever, "The Passion of the Christ" was weird--the Aramaic and Latin, the over the top brutality, the subtle and not so subtle antisemitism, these elements would conspire to work against a positive review.  That said, what would virtually seal the deal--is the near certainty that an unbeliever simply would not get it.  Their non-belief, their hostility to the Bible story, their blatant irreligiousness--whatever the case may be--rendered them  incapable of understanding what it was about why what he or she was seeing might move those around him or her. 

Which brings me to "Atlas Shrugged", which I drove an hour in a driving rainstorm to see today.  To use some of the phraseology from above--I am a "believer".  I've read the book several times, I've listened to an unabridged version twice--I have come in the twenty or so years since I first read the book to regard it as a work of coherent political philosophy, even if some of its literary content was less coherent.  That political philosophy--called Objectivism by some--places a premium on the freedom of the individual mind and how that mind makes its way in the world. 

I have wanted this movie to be made from the first time I read the book.  That it hadn't seemed like some sort of a crime to me.  In the past few years, as momentum grew and it seemed that it FINALLY would be made, the talk of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie playing the leads (Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart) seemed fitting to me. 

To say that I entered the theater today predisposed to like the movie I went to see is an understatement.  I was not capable of viewing it dispassionately and I am not capable of writing about it fairly.  I liked the movie.  I didn't love it, but I liked it.  I want to see the other two.  I hope it makes lots of money so that the production value on the next two increases.  I saw many flaws in its execution but I left knowing that it had succeeded (with me) and that I would be back.

But then, how would a "non-believer" view this movie?  How could someone hostile to the ideas of objectivism fairly review the movie?  Could they "get it"?  Could they appreciate the majesty of the John Galt Line's first train speeding over a bridge made of Reardon metal?  Could a person who has spent their lives cheering the results of collective bargaining appreciate the majesty of Dagny Taggart telling the slimy railroad union representative that his men would never work again on the John Galt Line if he persisted in his badgering?  I read Roger Ebert's review of the movie this morning--specifically thinking I might find that dispassionate and professional angle that I sought.  Here's a sample of what I got:

"I feel like my arm is all warmed up and I don’t have a game to pitch. I was primed to review "Atlas Shrugged." I figured it might provide a parable of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that I could discuss. For me, that philosophy reduces itself to: "I’m on board; pull up the lifeline." There are however people who take Ayn Rand even more seriously than comic-book fans take "Watchmen." I expect to receive learned and sarcastic lectures on the pathetic failings of my review."

There you have it.   1100 pages and fifty plus years of influencing conservative and libertarian political thought and Ebert breaks down the philosophy to "I'm on board, pull up the lifeline"?  How could anything he then went on to write be taken seriously?  How could a man so hostile to the basic ideas the movies seeks to treat be counted upon to review it fairly? 

Which got me thinking about the comparison to "The Passion of the Christ".  If you're hostile to the ideas of objectivism, you're unlikely to find anything about this movie you like, and you'll hate much of it.  If you're a fan of the ideas of objectivism, you'll love much of the dialogue, you'll recognize and root for certain characters, and you'll find yourself wishing it were done for $40M rather than $20M. 

Ok, you may be saying.  But what about those in the middle, CW?  With Christianity, there's not a whole lot of fence sitting--most either believe or don't.  You've got a third category with Rand--those who don't care.  Those who haven't been exposed.  Those who haven't read the book and who aren't particularly political.  What about them?

And here I say, is the difference in the review-ability of the movies.  This third way person could in fact adequately review the movie--and here is what I think they'd find:

1. A likable female lead who does a good job with her role.  She looks and acts the part of a driven industrialist.
2. A decent enough fellow playing Hank Reardon, but unremarkable.
3.  The production value was on par with a 1970's TV movie mini-series, like "Rich Man, Poor Man".   Not up to snuff with big time Hollywood--but then again, this wasn't a big time Hollywood movie.
4.  Because this reviewer would not have read the book and been exposed to the excessive and mind-numbing inner monologues of the characters--the movie characters would be confusing and poorly developed.  In the book, one comes to understand why Hank Reardon would put up with his mother, brother, and wife--all of whom deplore his wealth and drive.  But in the movie--such a review would find himself saying "why doesn't he just throw them out?"
5.  The movie jumps quickly from scene to scene in a bit of a helter-skelter way.  Condensing so much book into so little movie means they had to move fast--but one of the brilliant parts of the book was its description of places and things--which obviously, doesn't come through well in a movie. 

Ultimately, I think the third way review would not like this movie.  They would find all of the characters--the heroic and the banal--poorly developed and cartoonish--especially the banal ones (to be fair, they were also cartoonish in the book). 

What's better in the movie than in the book?  Well, for one thing, we're not treated to incessant inner monologues in which all of the Olympians are capable of reading each others minds.  Additionally, when Hank and Dagny get it on in this movie, it's a pretty straightforward post-wine romp in the hay, rather than the coupling of Zeus and Diana we read about in the book.

To conclude--if you're a conservative or libertarian, go see the movie.  If you're neither but have read the book, go see the movie.  If you're neither and reject the ideology of objectivism, don't waste your time and money.  And if you're neither and you are apolitical, wait for the DVD and download from Netflix.


Hammer said...

The message is the movie. If you don't like the message you won't like the movie. For anyone interested in politics, objectivity is probably impossible hence Ebert's remarks; a supposed objective reviewer of film. But what cannot be denied is the cold hard truth on display in Rand's book (and presumably the film as well), and that is the hypocritical, malevolent lie that is liberalism.

Goldwater's Ghost said... has Atlas Shrugged's weekend receipts at $1.7M on 300 screens nationwide.

Not a bad debut.

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