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May 09, 2011

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

I went in with low expectations, partly because of the critics' savaging (even though I know not to trust them, you can't help incorporate spin if you hear it enough) but mostly because I read the book, and knew, to make a good movie out of it, you'd have to change a lot. And I feared that they wouldn't.

That said, I was pretty nicely surprised. It's good. Not great. But still -- good. It's actually more subtle than I was expecting; maybe too subtle in one key area (more on this later, as it truly is key). Rand's book had the subtlety of a cast-iron lightning bolt, so any screen treatment might be expected to be much less didactic than her novel; but they seemed to have gone even further in toning down the heavy didacticism. Oh, it pops up here and there, but it's not really objectionable.

In fact, to tell the truth, I could have endured a little more of the statement of principle stuff. Because with so much of that stripped away-- why are the heroes acting as they do?

Two and a half stars good (which is my way of saying "Good enough to see, but not outstanding;" outstanding is three stars and superlative is four).

There are amateur mistakes, chiefly in the writing. The writing -- I'm not talking about dialogue, although there are some lapses there. I mean something important (and no, dialogue isn't terribly important). I mean major decisions about what emotion you're trying to convey in a scene and in the overall movie.

My overall guess is this: The producer, or the director, or both, decided that they had to be very faithful to Rand's book. So even in cases where her book was flawed in its under-dramatization (too much thinky-talking, not enough dramatic confrontations and emotion), they followed her down that path, deciding that fidelity to the source material was of primary importance, and dramatic movie-making only second.

In just about every criticism I have of the movie, I suspect that's the culprit. I do not remember much of the book, so I can't be certain of this, but some things that would strike any dramatist as obvious and needed aren't here, and the only explanation I can think of is "It's not here because it wasn't in the book."

That said, that just means it's not as good as it could have been. I still think it's good -- two and a half star good; a sort of minimally good-enough-to-see -- but the material is actually sort of good for a movie. I just wish they'd kept this in mind: That they're making a movie.

But overall-- actually, I thought it was pretty good. I was a little aware of the low budget but chiefly because I mostly thought "This doesn't look all that terribly low-budget at all." They did a good job with the look. When Rand wrote it, it was sci-fi, but from the POV of the fifties. Here, it's sci-fi, barely -- just 2016 -- but it neatly has a sort of 50s-ish tone to it in little ways. Like one character's clearly-throwback 50s eyeglasses. It adroitly mixes the book's time period with the film's, to make something better than a mere compromise.

This review is going to be heavy on criticism rather than praise, because, as with The Green Hornet, there's actually a better movie here, almost but not quite here, undermined by a series of unforced errors.

In this review I'm going to rely on memory of Ayn Rand's book and also Ayn Rand's psychology. My memory in a few cases may be shaky, and if so, let me know. So take my assertions as "This is how I remember it or how I learned it, but I could be wrong, and will correct upon notice of such."

If there's any chance of all that you don't know, Atlas Shrugged is a near-term sci-fi fantasy thriller about an increasingly collectivist and freedom-destroying dystopia, and, crucially, the fight back against it.

Now, many writers have addressed the idea of an increasingly socialistic/forcible-egalitarian society, crushing individual spirits and zeroing out individual achievement. Even cranky old lefty fossil Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. would try this later in 1961; and of course Orwell had tackled it, more or less, in Animal Farm and 1984. (Orwell's focus was a bit different in both, but this stuff was in the mix, at least.)

What made Ayn Rand's book different from these is that it's a heroic narrative. It's one thing to set up a dystopian nightmare and just have the main character be tortured to death and escape only via insanity/dislocation of mind from reality, as at the end of 1984. (Sorry, Spoilers!) Or to have the hero rebel, briefly, against the totalitarianism of egalitarianism only to be gunned down dead after his futile, and quickly forgotten, gesture, as in Harrison Bergeron. (Sorry, again, Spoilers!)

This is realistic, but it is also too easy, in a way. Man goes up against crushing force and is, precisely as expected, crushed.

Ayn Rand decided she wouldn't go for the standard chilling/downer ending that most dystopian fictions favor, but would add a heroic element: The forces of freedom and achievement fighting back, and not just in futile gestures or escapes into fantasy, but fighting back effectively and, ultimately... well, I won't say if their efforts are triumphant or not. But I'll say that at least in Atlas Shrugged, they seem to have a plan with at least a plausible chance of doing more than making a futile gesture of defiance before being executed. Whether it works or not, it's implicit in the book it could work. They do have a fighting chance, at least, unlike poor Winston Smith.


First up, the casting is very good. Before talking about that I want to note Ayn Rand's psychology. She grew up reading a lot of paperback heroic fiction -- what most people would call either hack fiction, or pulp. If I'm remembering correctly, she was a great fan of pulp detective writer Mickey Spillaine and his hardnosed shamus Mike Hammer.

The point is, she rejected what she saw as the trend in more modern, "good" fiction to strip out the heroic traits of characters, replacing those heroic traits with deep psychological flaws and weaknesses. Stuff like Death of a Salesman -- if I'm remembering right, she found that trend to be part of the "collectivist" mentality of the arts, the celebration not of the heroes she loved so dearly from her youth (and continuing into adulthood), but of a weak, debased version of man. She found that to be antithetical to the sort of celebration of the Greek/Nietschean ideal she could see, for example, in Mike Hammer's flint and grit.

Now, she dressed that up in as a sort of philosophical stance against the celebration of the common and mediocre. To be honest, I think she just really liked heroic fiction because it imprinted on her at an early and impressionable age. (No knock on that preference intended; I love that stuff myself, witness me reviewing every B-grade comic book movie. But then, I think I like that stuff due to a bit of arrested development, not some high-minded reaching for the Ancient Greek Heroic tradition).

Given that background, the choice of the leads for this movie are perfect.
The guy who plays Henry Rearden is especially good, in looks and manner as well as acting ability, and, further, because if Ayn Rand were currently alive and casting this movie this is exactly the man she would have cast. He's got the heroic look, but the sort of Gary Cooper heroic look of wisdom, patience, and father-figure charisma; I can't help but think that's exactly the sort of matured masculine ideal Rand had been imagining since she was a little girl.

Dagny Taggert is a harder role to cast. Most actresses are not, physically, well-suited to play roles that emphasize a more masculine type of heroism. By which I mean most known, working actresses are of a physical look that suggests the feminine virtues, and less that suggest the masculine ones.

Dagny Taggert is definitely a Man's Woman. But she's also, in accord with the heroic ideal, drop-dead gorgeous. Angelina Jolie would probably be one of the few actresses that had this combination working for them (which may explain why she was so determined to play Dagny Taggert).

But among the fairly short list of other women who could do it -- the actress they picked is perfect. Again, I think Rand would approve. She's physically beautiful but, at the same time, somewhat hard in her beauty, a little fiery, a little possessed of masculine swagger.

She falls down in acting about three or four times in the movie, though. I'll just note one moment: Her sleazy player of a brother accuses her of having no feelings, and of "Having never felt anything at all." She answers, "Yes, I've never felt anything at all," but the line is supposed to have the subtext beneath it, "I have more passion in me than you will ever know, and go f*** yourself with a grenade besides." She does add that... sort of, but that subtext doesn't crackle at all. It's a zinger that fails to zing.

That's actually a complaint about most of the acting. Good, layered, nuanced acting often has that counterpoint between what the character is saying and what he is trying to project he's feeling versus what the character really thinks and is really feeling.

As a general matter, no character in the movie ever really has that. Pretty much it's all the surface perfectly matching the interior. This is probably due to the source material itself. Rand was bewitched with the idea that "A is A," and didn't go in for all this subtext and conflicted emotion; she tended to write "characters" who were essentially just walking crystallizations of her philosophy (or foils for same). Unlike real life people, Rand's characters usually Are Who They Say They Are, and don't counterfeit their emotions. That would be philosophically impure or something.

Nevertheless, given that this is movie with a commercial payoff in mind, a bit of that layering of performance, even if in disagreement with the literal intent of the book, would have been helpful. It just makes characters in a movie seem more like real people. 90% of scenes would play the same way (you don't need much of this at all in a plot-driven thriller), but slipping in a little of it where it could be slipped in would make it seem more real.

But the main problem with both lead (I don't say "main;" more on that later) characters isn't about performance, or nuanced layers. It's about a simple lack of clear motivation.

Let me quote Harry S. Plinkett on this point: "And don't tell me it was explained in one of them there Star Wars novels; it should be there in the movie! It's the movie that matters!"

I forget the precise motivations of Dagny and Rearden in the book. It is my guess that neither had what we'd call a conventional motivation, some unfulfilled need, some innate drive, some psychological impulse for their actions. I am guessing that, because Rand's characters, as is often remarked, were less characters than walking billboards for Objectivism.

They didn't have psychological drives per se: They had philosophies.

And they didn't have psychological failings per se: They had errors in philosophy.

That's all well and good for the book. I can't argue with its sales figures.

But this is a movie. And furthermore, because the director and writers wisely (I think) chose to expurgate a lot of the repetitive recapitulation of the main tenets of Objectivism from the film, this leaves both characters in need of some motivation to replace that philosophical motivation.

In the book, they were animated by philosophical principle, principles which were stated, restated, argued and reargued dozens of times, and that's just by the midpoint of the book. Here, that's almost all missing.

So why do they act as they do, in the movie?

They smartly delete all that philosophical nattering and bothering, but they don't offer up a replacement for it. The audience is assumed to know the books, I guess, and add motivation in their own minds; but what if you haven't read the books? Or like me, read them long ago and forgot most of them?

Or, like Harry S. Plinkett, don't care if it was in no stupid Star Wars book; it's the movie that matters?

Dagny was the more philosophically pure of the two, if memory serves. Rearden, on the other hand, was conflicted, and in error philosophically; for example, he still felt the typical duty to provide for his family members who couldn't provide for themselves (despite treating him awfully for being a productive member of society). It is Rearden who is the Learner in the book, and Dagny (often) the Teacher, the Lecturer, the Professor of Objectivism, picking apart Rearden's defects of philosophy and instructing him in the One True Way of Self-Fulfillment.

In this respect, Dagny, in the book, was just a Mary Sue for Ayn Rand. But then, so were most of her heroes.

So sure, lose that omnipresent philosophizing as a character motivation. But then something needs to be conjured up here, some psychological drive that is congruent with and consistent with Objectivist precepts, but not the Objectivist precept itself.

Get me? If Objectivism is not her motivation (and it should not be), it needs to be replaced with some other drive. We know Dagny's virtues -- unflinching, determined, ambitious, smart -- but not what propels her to use them as she uses them, to choose one character as Friend and Ally and another as Opponent.

In the book, Dagny is these things because she's committed to Ayn Rand's Theories of Objectivism, absent here (except by implication or brief shorthand reference).

But in the movie, why is she these things? Am I supposed to just add back in all that philosophical claptrap the filmmakers have so deftly deleted for me?

Ayn Rand, I think, would reject what I'm about to propose, because for her, the point was that Dagny was this way precisely due to philosophy, and not due to any other reason, psychological or pragmatic. And you could be like Dagny -- in fact, you would be like Dagny -- if you just chose to abide by her philosophy.

So what I'm about to propose would be contrary to the spirit of the book. I admit that. But I think it would have been a good idea anyway. Even if hackneyed as all hell. And I do admit, this is hackneyed as all hell.

Let the hackneyedness commence:

Yes, I think the movie should have resorted to Dagny visiting the grave of her father (mentioned in the movie, as he built up the company, but is apparently dead now) and then reflecting on her father's commitment to principled excellence.

And yes, as a matter of fact, it is raining and she does carry a black umbrella when she visits the grave. Why do you ask?

And then she'd recall her father, how he built the company up from nothing, and bullshit-bullshit-button, and throw that in her brother's face when he suggested his various sleazy manners of taking out competitors without actually besting them.

Utterly hackneyed. And utterly contrary to Rand's theory of people only being the sum of their philosophy.

But a clear reason for her behavior. A relatable one. A human one. To honor the ideals of her father.

Yes, a hackneyed motivation. But it's a classic for a reason, as they say.

Something like that. Is that too obvious, too cliched? Okay, fine -- something like that. Something to root her behavior in previous experiences and emotions rather than the (to my mind) abstraction of philosophy.

This would make perfect sense, even in Rand's plotline -- because actually Dagny should not be the perfect crystallization of Objectivism from the outset of the book; she should have to have it explained to her (as she explained it to Rearden).

She is that in the book -- pretty much the Objectivist ideal from the jump -- but she shouldn't be.

To make this character have an "arc" -- a change -- she needs to start in a different place than she ends up.

If she begins as the perfect Objectivist, and then spends the middle of the trilogy being the perfect Objectivist, and the is the perfect Objectivist at the end, too -- then she hasn't changed at all, and is not, by common definition, a main character.

When I read the book, I remember being confused. I was confused because at first I assumed Dagney Taggert was the main character. But then I started to wonder: Maybe she's not the main character. Maybe it's this Rearden fellow she seems so taken with.

And I thought that because Taggert wasn't acting and talking like a main character. A main character is supposed to be a stand-in for the audience. Like Luke in Star Wars. Luke doesn't start the film knowing all about the Force, telling other characters about the Force.

No, Luke doesn't know about the Force, and needs another character, a mentor/exposition-reader to tell him about the Force.

This causes audience identification with Luke, as we are in the same boat as he is, information-wise: We don't know what he doesn't know, and we discover things just as he discovers them. Our journey is Luke's journey, then.

That's what makes him a main character.

But in the book Atlas Shrugged, Dagney Taggert begins spouting off fully-formed Objectivist philosophy from very, very early in the book. Instead of being like Luke -- someone to whom Objectivism is revealed -- she is instead like Obi-Wan, the revealer of mysteries.

But Obi-Wan is not the main character of Star Wars, obviously. His function there is to tutor the main character.

My belief is that Ayn Rand probably knew that, to be a good main character, Dagny Taggert should probably not just start spouting off the mysteries of The Force on page 15, but should have this all explained to her by an Objectivist Obi-Wan a little later.

But I think she grew impatient, and didn't want to wait for that to happen, so she just started having Dagny Taggert spouting all of Obi-Wan's wisdom despite the fact the character was really supposed to be Luke.

So here is my point: Do not follow her in this error. Make her like Luke. Make her not begin the movie -- now I'm talking about the movie -- with a full-fledged commitment to philosophical perfection. Have her learn it, from another. Like John Galt.

Henry Rearden goes through this process in the book; taught along by Dagny (and later the other Rand Mary Sues like Ragnar, D'Anaconia, and John Galt). It is my proposal that both Dagny and Rearden should have learned from the Mary Sues.

Let me address the objection: But that is directly contrary to Ayn Rand's whole idea that it's all about philosophy, not about petty sentimentalism and cheap psychology!

I'd say first that what is central to the story is that both Dagny and Rearden end the book as Objectivists by intellectual, philosophical choice. That is the crucial matter. That's the point of the book, the lesson.

The question of When they make this intellectual choice is simply incidental. So, in the book Dagny's already made it by page 15 and Rearden doesn't make it, halfheartedly, until 255 and then more completely at 380. That's not critical to the story, though. That's just incident. Just details.

Would it really change the story all that much if Dagny commits to Objectivism in Part 2 (when Rearden would be committing to it, if you followed the book) and then Rearden accepts it in full at the end of Part II or the beginning of Part 3?

And until John Galt explains it all to them, and makes his case, would it be so wrong if they had personal/psychological reasons for being inclined towards a non-rigorous, non-systematic sort of pre-Objectivism before then? That is, they were ready for Objectivism, but not yet schooled in it?

Rearden is also assigned a false motivation early. "All I care about is making money," he announces very early in the movie.

But that doesn't seem to be true. Later on, a government flunkie orders/asks him to sign over the rights to an alloy he's discovered -- and I believe the implication is he can ask whatever sum of money he likes. "You could make a fortune," the flunkie says.

Rearden refuses, and when the flunkie says he doesn't understand why Rearden is taking such a hard position on this, Rearden answers, "Because it's Mine. Do you have any idea of the concept of that?"

But -- if Rearden only cares about money, he should agree to the offer. But plainly he doesn't. So what is it? Is it this new concept of the Power of Mine? If so, where did that come from? I'm sure in the book there were at least fifteen philosophical exchanges between Dagny and Rearden that might explain his evolution towards Objectivist Principles, but that's deleted, so why is he offering up a crystallization of the philosophy without our ever seeing a hint of him groping towards that crystallization?

This is where a more flesh-and-blood motivation might have been helpful. We could have seen Rearden himself trying to grope at the answer, not understanding himself why he was refusing, ticking through all the effort and risk and sarring burns from liquid steel that went into his creation, and then, figuring out his own mind, then he could have crystallized his thoughts as, "Because it's Mine." That is, we could have seen him make this realization himself.

Instead, he just tells us the end product of some philosophy he learned on pages 223-228 and 241-247 of the book (unfilmed; look it up at home).

Peter Jackson left out all the Elven poetry from the Lord of the Rings. But that was easy to cut -- it was superfluous to the story. Ayn Rand's philosophy is not superfluous here, and while I agree it needs to be cut and trimmed, it can't be excised completely without leaving a hole. The hole needs to be plugged with something else.

It feels like the filmmakers are too afraid of the fans to add anything that isn't "canon." They feel they can delete, but not add. I guess they think the fans can always add that stuff back in their heads, but they can't subtract new scenes and new dialogue. Deleting stuff just indicates the film is incomplete as compared to the book; adding stuff would make it contradictory as compared to the book.

I believe now that they actually did film something very close to the book, with a lot of the philsophizing in there. This is a guess, and a supposition, but it makes sense, given what's presented here. It is my idea that the filmed all this stuff thinking they would put it out in the "Objective Cut" of the DVD, but left it out of the theatrical release."

That is why I think they decided they could delete, but not add: Because in the "real version" of the movie, the coming "Objective Cut" (my guess for a cute name) DVD, they'll have the philosophy back in there.

Whether that's true or not, the film, as theatrically released, is very very thin on character motivation.

Motivation is important. No critics are mentioning this, because they don't understand how movies work or why. But to have a grip on a character, for the audience to "get" a character, the audience needs some short, direct idea of what the character is about.

Sometimes motivation can be supplied in a subtle, textured way. That's good. That's the best way to do it... if you can.

If you can't do it subtlely, though, do it blatantly, because it's just too critical to be left blank.

Although I could follow most of Dagny's and Rearden's actions in the movie, I still don't really know why they were so extraordinarily committed to fight against collectivism when so many others were willing to succumb to it. Yes, I know they're special; of course they're special, they're heroes.

But what made them so? What gives them grit and fight when so many others' spirits are broken by the system?

To the extent Ayn Rand postulated that it was merely just a choice of philosophy, she was being, what's the word?, dumb. People are a lot more than philosophy and if you're making a movie it doesn't hurt to acknowledge that.

And, if the die hard fans would object, well, I'd cite The Onion's coverage of fan disapproval of the 2009 Star Trek reboot.

There's another simple decision that hurts this movie.

It's that they give you the answer to the million-dollar question, "Who is John Galt?," pretty much in the first five minutes of the film.

What?

The whole ad campaign is about that! That's the whole viral messaging of the book (and the movie)! You can't answer that right away! That's like showing Jaws right away, or Dracula right away, or... any other interesting thing which is meant to be a source of mystery and intrigue right away.

Rand's book was conceived as thriller. That means mystery and danger. At least it had the structure of a thriller.

I don't know when Rand revealed the answer to this question in the book but it doesn't matter. If she revealed it early, she screwed up, and there's no reason to follow her in that error.

If you want to entice an audience, entice them with mystery, with unanswered questions, and with a hint of danger and menace.

The problem is not at all the actor (actually the director) playing John Galt. He's fine. P.J. O'Rourke snipes that he seems to be "played by a fedora and a trenchcoat;" what the hell kind of dumbass critique is that? He's meant to be a man of mystery, a shape in the darkness; why shouldn't he appear in a trenchcoat and fedora and a shroud of shadow?

It's an iconic look. And, while a cliche: Again, it's a classic for a reason.

The actor (director) playing him is unseen, except for the rough outlines of a shadowy profile. It is my best guess this was done with the specific intention of substituting a more high-profile star for John Galt in Parts 2 and 3, when he's revealed, should the movie do well and they be able to afford a true lead actor.

Nothing wrong with that. They did that at the end of Sherlock Holmes when the revealed Moriarity, in shadowy outline, too. Who'll play him in the sequel? Whoever they want. They didn't show his face so all options remain open.

The problem, however, is that they explain almost immediately John Galt's plan. The book, at least initially, made a mystery of this question. And furthermore, suggested menace.

Some of the most accomplished people in the world are simply disappearing. Shortly after a visit from a mysterious stranger.

Disappearing. Without a trace. That's a bit menacing.

Are they being killed? Kidnapped? Coerced to work on some dark project?

In the movie, we see Galt approach a businessman in the first five minutes, after a bit of television-based exposition about how awful the economy is and how gas now costs, if I remember this right, "thirty-seven fifty a gallon."

He approaches the businessman -- let's call him "Bill McKenna," though I forget the actual name -- outside in the rain. Here's my memory of the exchange:

DARK FIGURE: Bill McKenna?

McKENNA (turning): Yes, what?

DARK FIGURE: I need to have a word with you.

McKENNA: Who are you?

DARK FIGURE: I'm a man like you -- a man who knows the joy of the fruits of his own labor.

McKENNA: What do you want?

DARK FIGURE: You and I are similar, Mr. McKenna. I need to talk to you. I have an idea you might be interested in.

Then a black and white photo of McKenna comes up, with the scrolling digital text (as if it's an FBI report):

BILL McKENNA
MANUFACTURING CEO
MISSING SINCE SEPT. 9, 2016

That whole business of the "MISSING" picture coming up is meant to suggest menace, threat, mystery. But they already gave the game away.

The Dark Figure was 1, polite, 2, complimentary, 3, philosophically-minded and in such a way as to be pleasing to McKenna, 4, seemed to have a proposal in mind to which McKenna could give his assent or refusal freely, and 5... well, he was just pleasant.

Where is the mystery? Where is the danger?

Compare that method of doing it to this one, a better one. An extremely obvious one, and yet still better:

DARK FIGURE: Bill McKenna?

McKENNA: Yes?

DARK FIGURE: It's time, Mr. McKenna.

McKENNA: What?! Who are you?

DARK FIGURE: Someone who's been watching. For a long time.

The Dark Figure approaches McKenna, menacingly.

Black and white picture comes up, BILL McKENNA, MISSING SINCE SEPT 9, 2016.

See the difference? The way I suggest leaves open the possibility of murder or kidnapping or other such dire outcomes. The way they do it forecloses the possibility of genuine danger almost completely, and right out of the gate.

Leaving the possibility of dark dealings open for as long as possible is nothing but upside. It increases tension the whole time, and then, later in the movie, when more of Galt's pitch is revealed, it's a surprise.

Yes, 90% of the people seeing this know the story anyway and so they won't be worried or surprised later. But what about the 10% who doesn't? Why not play to them a little?

Furthermore, every time I watch Die Hard I already know that McClane is going to shoot through the wood into Marco's shins when Marco has him trapped beneath the table. Knowing this doesn't entirely diminish my appreciation of the craft of the scene, nor squash my delight at the unexpected-yet-completely-expected reversal.

Half the thrillers I see I figure out the plots one third of the way in -- I still appreciate the nods towards swirling mystery and unanswered questions.

Maybe they thought that Galt's words were vague enough that it didn't give it away. Well, maybe it didn't give away his whole plan, but to me, Galt was plainly making an offer, not a threat, not a demand.

In the movie, we hear more of Galt's proposal in the beginning, and then later, when we know the basic gist, they make it very short, often just him knocking at the door and asking to speak to a person. This is exactly backwards. His proposition should have been briefer and more ambiguous at first, and then only more fleshed out later on (like, only for the last person he makes his offer to).

There's a brief scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Steven Spielberg observes the basic rule of "preserve mystery, and suggest danger, wherever possible." Early in the film, Indy leaves his office at the university. As the sun sets, the world is blue shadow, and he approaches his car. But before he gets there, he's accosted, or at least interrupted, by three men in coats and fedoras. The scene is played wordlessly (M.O.S., as they say), so we don't know what the men are saying. But we see Indy being escorted into a different vehicle, and the men shut the door on him, locking him inside.

Now, what was that all about? Were they threatening him? Were they minions of villains from a previous adventure out for revenge? Is Indy going to live?

Well, where they were taking him was a fancy black-tie party where Indy was to be given an intriguing, exciting offer by a millionaire willing to pay him handsomely for his expertise. No threat at all!

But Spielberg implied one anyway, injecting a brief "danger beat" into the opening expository stuff. Whereas if they played the scene with sound, it would have been pretty lame. Let's watch that scene again, this time, with the microphones running:

MAN IN HAT: Doctor Jones! I have a wonderful opportunity for you which will greatly enhance both your professional prestige and financial circumstances!

INDY: Sounds good! Let me get into my car and follow you!

MAN IN HAT: No, let's take ours! It gets terrific gas mileage and this way we can play Punch-Buggy on the way over!

INDY: Well, thats just splendid then!!! Shotgun!!!

MAN IN HAT: Sorry, Indy! My buddy Chip here called shotgun when you were walking down the street!

INDY: Ohhhh, fiddlesticks!!!

Yes, Spielberg and/or writer Jeffrey Boam made the right decision keeping the mics off.

There was no point in making mystery in this scene for the audience... except that mystery is fun and therefore pleasing to the audience.

Always make mystery where you can. Especially in a thriller.

Especially in a talky thriller.

Especially in a talky thriller that specifically relies completely upon the dark, mysterious figure of John Galt to provide the sense of danger and anticipation.

A big problem, not so easily fixed but still pretty easily fixable, is that there is almost no confrontation between villains and heroes.

The template of the movie is this: Villains huddle together (almost always the same four) to conspire in a hard-to-follow way against the heroes. It tends to involve dirty dealings and stupid legislation with names like the "Protection from Unhealthy Competition Act." (No, that's not the real name, the real name isn't that dumb; it's something like that.)

Heroes get together and talk about their joint venture of a trainline built with Rearden metal. Then it is is reported to them that some bad thing has been done, and they will now suffer the dire effects of the legislation against them. This report is made by a friend -- usually the same guy who serves as Dagny's right-hand man.

Then they suffer the consequences of that, usually in a brief scene.

What doesn't happen is important: The villains to not confront the heroes face to face and mock, threaten, harass, etc., them.

Maybe this was some point of Rand's, that these scheming douchebags don't even have the courage for face-to-face confrontations, and always work behind the scenes, like cowards.

Maybe-- but if that's the case, it's still an error that should not be repeated.

This is drama: We need to see the conflict, not just hear about it secondhand.

The confrontation between heroes and villains is too important for it to always occur via intermediary. It should be "show, don't tell." We should see the drama, see the trap being sprung, and not just have it reported to us secondhand by a friendly flunky giving us a corporate briefing.

The scene that would have unfolded here would have been great and the climax of the film. Henry Rearden, bullied and lied about and harassed by venal, bought-and-paid for Senators, being forced to defend himself against lies and perjurious testimony procured by the villains, who smile as they watch.

When the villain is punishing/torturing the hero, it's crucial we see that. That's why we don't like the villains, and why we empathize with the hero, and root for them to succeed.

Here, a critical plot event happens -- a law is passed forbidding anyone in the steel industry from owning any other business, a law passed only to compel Rearden to sell his precious new alloy to his competitors (or the government, who will in turn give it to his competitors), forcing him to dismantle his whole company just to keep his metal -- but rather than see him being harangued by lies and insinuations (and who knows -- false allegations of having an affair with Dagny, which he hadn't (yet)) -- we're just told, "They passed that law."

And then there's a brief montage of Rearden selling off various properties.

They dramatized the least interesting part of this, the paperwork part of this, rather than the most compelling part, the part with yelling and hurled accusations and Rearden being restrained by Dagny from knocking someone's teeth out on CSPAN.

This isn't even hard to shoot. Rent out a VFW ballroom and put a wooden dais up front and some cameras and some witness tables and six American flags and you have the "Senate Committee on the Preservation of Critical Industry Hearing Room."

But they just don't. The only reason I can think of is that it wasn't in the book -- but so what? Then the book is wrong, and badly wrong.

There are only two confrontations at all with villains, but they're not even villains, they're lackeys, and they're minor. While the legislation that has been cooked up by the villains for almost the whole movie is passed without any dramatic confrontation.

Rand didn't care about this because drama was to her just a way to sell her philosophy. And a book is cheaply made. She didn't care so much about dramatizing stuff because it was the arguments about philosophy she cared about.

But a movie is expensive, man. And it's completely visual and about emotion.

And this million-dollar scene was just dispensed with with "They passed the bill?"

I can't explain this bizarre decision except "It wasn't in the book, and if we add that, the disciples of the book would be upset."

Well... I think you need to upset the fans, then, by giving them a better movie than they wanted.

And if you say "Oh your Senate hearing scene is a cliche, and we just saw it in Iron Man 2," I'll answer: My cliched, jumped-up, exciting-even-if-done-before drama is better than your "They passed the bill."

It can't be stressed enough how important the confrontation is between Heroes and Villains. In every James Bond movie, they contrive a series of non-lethal social combats -- over the Bacarrat table, over a horse race, over a fencing match gone wild, over a mistress' affections -- just to have hero and villain confront each other as many times as possible, even before they actually begin trying to murder each other.

In Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, even though Khan and Kirk were aboard entirely different ships, they made damnsure those two guys faced each other on the viewscreens three or four times in the movie.

And many drafts contained some contrived scene of Kirk beaming aboard Khan's ship, just so they could have a real face-to-face encounter, and fistfight. They wisely omitted that, but the basic rule -- We need these guys in near constant antagonism throughout the movie -- was always borne in mind.

It doesn't matter if it wasn't in the book. Then the book was wrong.

Dagny does have a few arguments with her brother, but the problem is, I don't even know if her brother is a proper villain, or just a dupe, or what. I don't know how "bad" he is. He's willing to scheme against competitors and Harry Rearden (someone he doesn't know, so who cares?), but that's not really villainous per se.

Is he willing to betray his sister? Is he that far gone? I don't remember the book so I don't know.

Part of the problem here is that I don't know that someone's a Villain unless I see them doing something detestable. I don't like the brother, but being a douchebag isn't villainous. I guess I need a little clarity here.

Which is the whole point of confrontations, I guess. They quickly set up a line of friend and enemy and how vicious the enemy is capable of being.

One last missed opportunity is that, while we know Dagny and Henry have two tickets to HookUpsVille, population Your Ass, we chiefly know this because 1, they're the heroes, 2, they're the most physically attractive people in the movie, 3, they spend screentime together, and 4, Henry is married to a sour shrew who seems to loathe him, so.

What is missing is hints that they desire each other. Sure, they respect each other. We get that. They are sympatico. We get that. But romantic spark? It's not that they have no chemistry, it's that the director doesn't make this chemistry overtly sexual or romantic. Until he does, and then the deed is quickly done.

There is no scene, for example, of them both reaching for a pen at the same time, and then recoiling as if shocked when their hands touch, embarrassed/intrigued. Or those sort of longing stares and quiet smiles.

I'm going to guess, again, that this is Because of the Book, and that Rand conceived of her heroes (especially Dagny) as so suffused with sexual confidence and sexual determination that there is no "Maybe they will or maybe they won't; they won't until they decide they will, and then they will. Because they made that Choice."

I don't know. But I do know that there's a missed opportunity here, whatever the book might have had to say about it, to show two people we care about showing some human trepidation and uncertainty. This maybe gets to Rand's conception of heroes as Ideals; maybe making them too Ideal, too in control of their emotions, too full of heroic resolve and heroic restraint, is taking a lot of the fun out of them. Maybe a little of Willie Loman's fallibility here would be helpful.

It may sound like I didn't like the film, and am giving it a semi-positive two and a half rating just out of ideological loyalty. That's not true. I stand by my rating. I did enjoy it, the look of it, the basics of the plot, and the cast.

But I do think the movie almost went out of its way to be a lesser movie than it could have been.

And I have to think that was due to a very misplaced fidelity to the text of Rand, as if it were a Holy Book. (And on that: Even Mel Gibson added a confrontation between Satan and Jesus in The Passion! Gibson knew you need that face-to-face confrontation, even if you're adding to the Holiest Book of All.)

When you're translating a poem or novel from one language to another, you are always confronted with a tough choice: Shall I be faithful to the letter of the text, or the spirit of the thing?

Usually the spirit is more important. The exact words were chosen to suggest a specific spirit -- the spirit was the real goal of the original author, where the exact words were just the tools he chose to achieve that goal.

When Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, what was the spirit of the thing? Her idea was to sell a strongly libertarian (quasi-conservative) philosophy by packaging it in a popular medium (the crackerjack sci-fi mystery thriller potboiler novel). She chose to write in a popular medium, using the tropes of that medium, to sell her philosophy.

So, in translating this book to screen, to honor the spirit of the book, the filmmakers should have done likewise: Make as popular a movie as you can, using all sorts of conventions of popular movies (like transparent motivation, dramatic confrontations between hero and villain), in order to sell the philosophy.

And ignore the exact words or plot points she employed. They were just the tools to achieve the goal she desired (which she did, in fact, achieve). But to cling slavishly to her exact tools, while losing sight of her mission, is actually, in effect, a mistranslation of the novel.

I have a feeling that the mistakes here are probably due to the guy who put up his $20 million for the movie-- maybe he demanded as faithful a translation as possible. Obviously, if he's putting up that much cash for a dream, he must have a real love of the book. Maybe a little too much love -- too close to the source material to judge it dispassionately. (And ruthlessly, where needed. Like Dagny would treat it.)

Since Rand wouldn't judge the movie by good intentions, I won't either. Mistakes were, as they say, made. But despite some basic mistakes that should never have been made (nor made again), it's still a reasonably fun movie.

They deserve a shot at Parts II and III -- and, maybe more importantly, a shot at doing a second version of Part I. It would only take some light editing, a couple of reshoots... and a fifteen minute scene that really is the unseen heart of the movie.

digg this
posted by Ace at 06:11 PM

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