The Critics of Atlas Shrugged Part 2: The Strike

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Not a single critic I have read grasped the compelling central theme of Atlas Shrugged Part 2—or chose to mention it. Why? Because they are unable to see what is happening to the world they live in.

When I saw Atlas Shrugged Part 2 the day it opened, I almost looked forward to the reviews. Yes, most reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 had been negative, relentlessly so, divided between criticism of the production values and dismissal of the movie’s meaning with a few crude caricatures of Ayn Rand’s ideas. (By the way, I have been viewing and occasionally reviewing movies far longer than, for example, the current young movie critic for the New York Times, and the production qualities of Atlas Shrugged I came as a pleasant surprise to me—but let that go, for now.)

After seeing Atlas Shrugged Part 2 and talking with others who saw it, the virtually unanimous view was that the casting and acting, sets, special effects, and other production qualities were far superior to Atlas Shrugged Part 1. (They are superior because the budget and production schedule were far more favorable to success.) So I thought that this time the critics would not have the easy criticism of production values. (I say “easy” because most critics don’t seem to feel it necessary to offer much evidence or argument for assertions about the quality of acting, cinematography, or special effects.)

No, in reviewing Atlas Shrugged Part 2 they would have to confront the real reasons for their nearly hysterical aversion to the supposed meaning of the movie. In particular, I thought that the movie’s dramatizing of the real conflict in a statist economy—the essential conflict in America today and the America of Atlas Shrugged Part 2—was so brilliant and intense that no critic could miss it. It is, of course, the conflict between an economy’s producers in every field and at all levels of ability and the businessmen who grow rich through their influence, their “pull,” in Washington. It is the conflict between the men who create the wealth and the men on the receiving end of the interventionist-welfare state as politicians and bureacrats gain power to dispose of a nation’s wealth.

In Atlas Shrugged Part 2, none of the conflict is between the rich and poor, the “haves” and “have-nots”; it is between Dagny Taggart and her brother James Taggart and his political cronies, between Hank Rearden and the aspiring dictator Wesley Mouch. The clash is portrayed with almost heart-stopping power as James Taggart makes deal after deal with his Washington friends and Dagny fights to keep the trains moving and so protect America’s last economic lifeline.

The heroic innovator and industrialist, Hank Rearden, keeps producing even at the cost of violating Washington dictates that carry a jail sentence. In a scene that the audience cheered aloud when I saw the movie, Rearden defies the Washington tribunal (jury trials are passé, by this time) with a speech that rips the cover off the motives and moral corruption of the pull peddlers—and we can watch the panicked rodents darting toward the nearest hole.

The cluelessness of the critics

I thought: No one can miss this. And the critics might even understand and approve. It is ability against influence and power politics. It is innovation and production of all the life-giving technology that make America what it is—versus trillions dispensed to banks and Wall Street brokers through “TARP” and all the sudden riches of the “crony capitalists.”

Wrong again, Walter! I now have read about a dozen reviews of Atlas Shrugged II, including those in the New York Times (Manohla Dargis, Oct. 15), L.A. Times (Sheri Linden, Oct. 15), Philadelphia Inquirer (Tirdad Derakhshani, Oct. 13), and Hollywood Reporter (Todd McCarthy, Oct. 12). For the most part, they repeat critics' assertions from Part I about the production values, although, of course, since these are mere assertions, one critic says the portrayal of Dagny Taggart is the movie’s worst and another says it is the movie’s best portrayal—and so on.

Not a single critic I have read grasped the compelling central theme of Atlas Shrugged Part 2—or chose to mention it. You know, I have to wonder what readers of these reviews who are not familiar with Atlas Shrugged and haven’t seen the movies must think. Most major reviews I read excoriate the movie as “doctrinaire,” “preaching,” “manifesto-as-movie,” and every derogatory synonym for dealing with ideas. But not one review ever gives an example of these “doctrines,” of what is “preached.” The reader who relies on the reviews for knowledge finishes the reviews with an impression that this movie—with its pulsing action scenes such as the battle against an explosive flood of molten steel or a terrible night-time crash between on-coming trains—must portray a two-hour-long Sunday sermon or academic conference on sociology.

And what about the theme of Part 2—the producing mind versus the exploitation of political power? After all, as the critics mention, the movie seems (somehow, they suggest) relevant to America today and the hotly contested election in November. And what is that relevance? Well, obviously the movie favors the one percent over the 99 percent, right? And Wall Street over Occupy Wall Street, right? And the billionaires over the welfare recipients, right? Each of these assertions is made or implied over and over again in the reviews I read. And that is all.

And it is all wrong. It is obviously wrong. And to anyone who sees the movie it is so obviously wrong that one must conclude that the reviewers—many at the top of their profession—are simply unwilling or unable to address the real theme of the movie. I hesitate to label them intellectually dishonest because I am aware that many people supposedly dealing with ideas in their professions are actually shuffling around little boxes with labels such as “good politician gives to the needy,” “bad businessman makes money and wants to keep it,” “good protesters demand social justice,” “one percent versus 99 percent,” “selfish guys versus good guys,” and so on.

As you read the reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part 2, you see these units inserted by critics who are confident that they are dealing with the movie’s ideas. The Inquirer characterizes the movie’s theme as “The herd are always trying to mooch… They want handouts.”

But the moochers who seek the handouts in Atlas Shrugged Part 2 are the businessmen who can “compete” with Hank Rearden only by allying themselves with Washington power brokers.

The relevance of Atlas Shrugged Part 2

Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter (October 12) actually says that the movie seems relevant to the coming election because business executives are juxtaposed with “Occupy-like protestors.” Yes, this is true, in passing, but not once in the movie does Dagny Taggart or Hank Rearden criticize or denounce the protestors in any way. Mr. McCarthy never mentions that they clash continually with James Taggart, the pull-peddling president of the Taggart Transcontinental, and Wesley Mouch, the ultimate Washington manipulator.

For the most part, I must exempt New York Times critic Manohla Dargis from this criticism. She manages to write her review virtually without reference to ideas. Although she says the movie is made for “true believers,” she makes no reference to what they believe. Instead, she takes one casual shot at stating the theme as “the evils of regulation and the glories of capitalism.” Apparently everyone knows what is in those “idea boxes,”—no need to explain that the “glory” is the freedom of the individual, innovating mind in every field, at every level of ability, to pursue and produce everything that sustains, extends, and brings joy to human life. 

What is curious is that critics reserve some of their heaviest sarcasm for the strike itself. Inquirer critic Tirdad Derakhshani calls it “disturbingly similar to toddler behavior” because John Galt would “rather destroy his toys than share them.”

The America of Atlas Shrugged Part 2 is collapsing into socialist dictatorship. For example, Hank Rearden is brought before a Washington tribunal and could be slapped into jail for 10 years without trial or jury. The government has confiscated all intellectual property. Changing your job or leaving it is against the law. If industrialists and scientists in Germany in the late 1930s had gone on strike, refusing to cooperate in any way with the rising National Socialist regime, or if workers and businessmen in Venezuela today went on strike against the accelerating dictatorship of Hugo Chavez, would we characterize their courage as “toddler behavior” and refusing to “share”? The “sharing” by Hank Rearden, by the way, would mean agreeing to confiscation of Rearden Metal by Washington bureaucrats, who plan to use the metal for a purpose they will not reveal. He will not sell the metal without knowing how it will be used.

Atlas Shrugged Part 2 can be characterized as a movie about one—yes, essentially only one—idea. That idea is dramatized in every scene in a rising crescendo of action and conflict as the men of productive ability fiercely battle against the final collapse of America into the economic catastrophe of dictatorship, where political power seekers and crony capitalist looters both strangle and exploit—destroy and depend upon—their last great victims. And as the movie races toward its hypnotically powerful climax, the victims are beginning to grasp how intolerably evil are the enemies of man’s creating mind. But that they can be beaten—once and for all.

Don’t miss Atlas Shrugged Part 3.

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About Walter Donway