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Review: Atlas Shrugged part 1 – High Speed Rail Done Right

John on February 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

They got it right.

Sure I would have loved to see the $40 million dollar version of the same movie, but the bottom line is that it works and works well. With the executive summary out of the way, let’s go into a bit more detail about the film itself. (If you want to read about my night out at the premiere, that’s here.)

I finished reading the book for the first time just a couple weeks ago. The book itself is brilliant. It reads like a thriller or a beach novel, and yet there is nary a word in its 1100 pages that isn’t calculated to support the theme and the ideas Rand is trying to get across. Agree or disagree with her premise (or like me, some of both); it’s impossible not to appreciate the scope and genius of what Ayn Rand wrote.

But the book was published in 1956 and set in the near future. This creates some immediate problems for adapting it in the present day, most significantly the fact that the book centers on a rail empire when most of us are used to thinking of airlines as the main mode of trans-continental transportation. The film sets this aside in an opening montage and moves on. It’s not the only solution I can think of, but it works and you forget about it and get absorbed into the film itself.

The story is really the star here. It’s a film on gleaming blue rails that carefully follow the curves of the landscape Ayn Rand created over 50 years ago. There won’t be any unpleasant surprises for devotees of the novel. No Jar-Jar moments to make you cringe. In fact, the producers have put together a top notch cast of character actors, many of whom will be familiar to audiences even if their names aren’t quite household words.

The major characters in this section of the book are Dagny Taggart and her brother James, Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt. All four offer performances that match their characters in the book. First off, Graham Beckel does a great job with Ellis Wyatt. He gets the least screen time of the four, but really livens up the proceedings every time he enters the frame. The scene where he has Dagny and Rearden to his house for dinner seemed to come right out of the book. He embodies a kind of everyman elitism that sounds contradictory but really works in the novel. Graham Beckel simply becomes Ellis Wyatt.

Matthew Marsden is younger than I imagined James Taggart being but he has the scheming, slightly petulant character down. You won’t like James Taggart and if you’ve read the book you know that’s exactly how you should feel about him. Taylor Schilling’s Dagny Taggart is sexy but a bit cold. Again, this makes it hard to warm up to her at first, but it’s also exactly how Dagny comes off in the book. As the film goes on she warms up (especially to Hank) and begins to carry the emotion of the film from the high of the John Galt line to the low of Wyatt’s torch.

For me the real surprise was Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. He is in many ways the most complex character in the film. He has a family that doesn’t treat him well and a cold and unkind wife. Through the course of the film he falls for Dagny and begins an arc that will carry on until part 3. It probably helps that Grant/Hank had all the funniest moments (there are several). Bowler plays Hank in a way that is instantly likable and relatable, maybe even better than he comes across in the book. Grant looks a bit like Daniel Craig and so I found myself comparing his performance to Craig in Casino Royale (one of the best Bond films ever!). Obviously Atlas isn’t an action film, but there is something similar about the way both Bowler and Craig are able to humanize scenes with a smile or a quirky look. He’s the spine of part 1 and he really makes it work.

The direction is solid and surprisingly ambitious at times. I was struck by the scene of Hank Rearden’s anniversary party which starts with one long shot that goes on for maybe two full minutes (or more?). We’re talking a moving camera shot that included handoffs to several characters as they move through a crowded room full of background action and some cool focus pulls as well. The film geek in me was reminded of Hitchcock’s Rope in which he tried to make the entire film appear as one long take (but was limited by the cameras which could only hold about 10 minutes of film). Anyway, I was impressed by the shot. I’d love to know how many takes it took to get it just right. Kudos to director Paul Johansson for showing us something without overdoing it.

I have to say a word about the special effects and the music as well. The main effects work comes in a sequence late in the film when Hank and Dagny run the John Galt line. It’s clearly CGI, but very well done. Both Scott and I remarked what a great job they did with the design of the transcontinental bridge. It was every bit as beautiful as the book made it sound and looked absolutely believable on screen. Well done. Music is a significant part of the novel and I thought the score served the film well, especially in the second half of the film as the emotion ratchets up and the music begins to intrude (pleasantly) on the proceedings.

The overall impression is of a very well crafted indie film. The budget (around $10 million according to this site) is sufficient but obviously precluded some of the grand sets and throwaway beauty shots that a $30-40 million bankroll would have made possible. Still, the story is the star here and once that gets going it seems to pick up speed right until the end. In fact, I was actually surprised when it was over that the time had gone by so quickly.

Of course at just an hour an forty minutes fans of the book will notice there was a lot that had to be streamlined and/or simplified. No doubt some purists will have a problem with any changes, but I understand why the producers went the way they did. They wanted this to be accessible to a wide audience, not just the die hards. Still, I would happily watch a director’s cut with an additional 20 minutes of footage should one ever become available.

If I were to compare this to anything it would be to the Swedish films based on Stieg Larsson’s popular novels (i.e. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Those were produced with similar (slightly larger) budgets and I felt they were some of the best films released last year. Like those films, Atlas Shrugged part 1 is well written, well acted and well directed. Indeed, it’s better than most big studio films. Having seen it, I’m very hopeful it will find an appreciative audience and, in true Randian form, a very profitable release. I’m already planning to see it a second time when it opens in theaters April 15th and, needless to say, I’m looking forward to part 2.

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