“I won’t be a slave.”
Those are the words of Dagny Taggart, the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s classic dystopian novel “Atlas Shrugged,” and now Part 2 of the serial film adaptation.
The way you interpret Taggart’s words will probably determine whether you agree with the critics (who almost universally hated this movie) or with the average moviegoers who gave the film an 80 percent positive review on the Rotten Tomatoes website.
If you think that being a slave means working voluntarily for a corporation or employer and then complaining about the job because your boss makes more than you do (or makes you work hard for your money), then you won’t understand this movie. Covetousness and slavery are not the same thing.
If on the other hand, you think slavery means having a grasping government strip you of your property, your rights and your dignity in a misguided effort to make life easier for your neighbor, then you might be ready to see what life might look like “sometime in the near future” if the government keeps taking what rightly belongs to you.
Producer Harmon Kaslow says the film is about “the collectivist socialist mentality in Washington, D.C.” — and that fits just about right. It continues to stagger the imagination just how prophetic Ayn Rand proved to be in her gargantuan 1957 novel, but every day in every way our world is becoming more and more like a living diorama of Rand’s worst nightmares.
Now, I’m not going to try to claim that the film versions of the first two-thirds of “Atlas Shrugged” are brilliant artistic masterpieces, because they aren’t — but they are a darn sight more relevant to your life and our country’s plight than almost anything else you will see on the silver screen.
Part 1, which was released last year on Tax Day, introduced the characters of the novel to the general public, and worked as a passionate plea — a cri de coeur — for the idea that mankind owes its rise to the selfish beneficence of talented individuals whose genius works best when unrestrained. Heiress Dagny Taggart was introduced as a woman dedicated to saving her family’s railroad despite endless government interference that makes doing business in a businesslike manner almost a revolutionary act. Dagny and her eventual lover, Hank Reardon — the inventor of a revolutionary new metal — represent the creative impulse of capitalism. They are exemplars of how the urge to make a better product or to provide a better service must inevitably benefit mankind as a whole, even though the motive for success is something much more narrow — the satisfaction of a job well done.
In Part 2, the characters continue (although oddly the actors have all been replaced) to learn how to operate in a world that is spiraling out of control as the government imposes more and more restrictions on creativity, capitalism and corporations in a misguided effort to harness the wealth of the upper echelons to benefit those impoverished by the failed social engineering of previous generations.
You’ll recognize this world as a virtual duplicate of our own — just pushed a bit further into the collectivist dead-end. Instead of pitting the 99 percent against the 1 percent, as Occupy Wall Street aimed to do, now people hold up signs saying, “We are the 99.98 percent.” Gasoline has topped $40 a gallon at the pump. Everywhere, the oppression of regulations and bureaucracy has led to decline and dismay. And now, the creative class that previously had fueled the nation’s economic growth through continued inventiveness is growing tired of the oppression — and is going on strike, literally. Indeed Part 2 takes its subtitle from the original title of Rand’s novel, “The Strike,” and we watch as, one after another, entrepreneurs and inventors disappear, leaving the wealth of a nation in the hands of people who have no idea what to do with it — except take whatever isn’t firmly nailed down.
The government tries to take back control by fiat — issuing laws such as one which orders companies to make sure they don’t give anyone a competitive advantage in how they do business — not realizing that a competitive advantage is exactly the secret ingredient that makes capitalism work.
That misguided law is called the “Fair Share Act,” and in case that rings a bell, maybe you are recalling that a senator with a name that sounds like it’s right out of Rand’s imagination — Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island — introduced the “Pay a Fair Share Act” to try to force millionaires to pay the government a 30 percent tax on their investments. What makes that a “fair share?” Easy — it’s all the Democrats thought they could get away with prying away from the people who actually earned the money in the first place. Take any more, and sooner or later you might actually foster a strike just like the one that Rand had envisioned.
It is just such parallels with our own rogue government that make “Atlas Shrugged: Part 2” rewarding for those who are open to the idea of ending their own slavery. There are numerous individual sequences that are stunning and stirring, such as the deadly train crash in the Taggart Tunnel and the trial of Hank Reardon for failing to be a good little slave. My personal favorite is the explanation by a train worker to Dagny Taggart of how he had helped to create the revolutionary catchphrase, “Who is John Galt?” as a result of his despair watching capitalism give way to collectivism at the symbolic 20th Century Motor Co., which like our own 20th century began with vigor and spunk and ended with a whimper and deadly decay.
No, “Atlas Shrugged” is not a great film — it lacks the dramatic precision required to elevate it to that level — but anyone who watches the film without rooting for it, without caring about its message and its warning, is also lacking something — wisdom.
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana.