It's 2016, and the United States is in bad shape. Gas is more than $37 a gallon. Airplanes are too expensive to fly. The Dow Jones Industrial average has plunged to 4,000 as the government steps up its regulatory oversight.
The country needs a hero, and fast. And it'll have to be a different sort of hero than we're used to thinking about at the movies. Superman can fly and Spider-Man spins a mean web, but both are fairly powerless when it comes to interest rate hikes and the misery index. This hero needs to boast an incorruptible sense of self, a superhuman desire for power and success, extraordinary corporate vision and a utility belt filled with world-changing ideas.
In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, superheroes don't wear capes. They carry corporations on their shoulders.
Enter Henry Rearden, a true man of steel. He makes the stuff for a living, and in turn it's made him rich. Now the magnate has made a new steel alloy—stronger, lighter and cheaper than anything the world has seen.
That's wonderful news for Dagny Taggart, who's trying to keep the family railroad business afloat in spite of her weak-willed, government-sympathizer brother's inefficiency. She hires Rearden to help her fix an important railroad line through Colorado, and he promises that his steel will make it a modern marvel. Meaning that she'll be able to carry more cargo at less cost than any of her competitors. It's a classic win-win business proposition for them. They'll help the world take a technological step forward … and get stinkin' rich in the process. Or rather, stinkin' richer.
"My metal, your railway," Henry tells Dagny. "It's us who'll rule the world, and it's us who will pull it through."
But alas, superheroes never go unchallenged. Mr. Rearden and Ms. Taggart have powerful enemies who would do absolutely anything to take them down. And they've already got their hands on a huge chunk of kryptonite in the form of government legislation. Worse, it seems that every time they find men and women of like minds to help them move the ball forward, they begin to babble something or other about a certain John Galt … and then disappear.
In the entertainment industry, businessmen are reliable go-to villains. From sober dramas (The Insider) to big-budget blockbusters (Avatar) to kids' comedies (Furry Vengeance), the capitalist and industrialist often takes the fall.
Atlas Shrugged, published by Rand in 1957 to espouse her philosophy on objectivism and "ethical egoism," flips the coin in a big way. Here, industrialists are the heroes, and it's nice for them to get some overdue cinematic love. After all, Rand does have a point: If all the ambitious, creative businessmen in the world suddenly left the rest of us slobs to our own devices, where would we be? I certainly wouldn't be looking forward to receiving my own iPad.
The movie's vision of them is not without its problems, of course, and we'll get into those later. But for the moment we'll admire the entrepreneurial spirit praised here, the sheer gumption to achieve and succeed in the face of stiff opposition. When Dagny can't get funding for her new railway line, she refuses to buckle under the pressure. "I am not giving up," she says. "I am not going to quit. I am going to win."
And while neither Dagny nor Henry have any altruistic instincts, they're not spiteful or inhumane. They simply believe that altruism is, essentially, counterproductive. The only way to help other people, they say, is by helping yourself: Personal success on a grand scale will buoy society and make things better for everyone. And they're more than happy to buoy society—as long as it doesn't try to get in their way.
Rand was, at times, a militant atheist, and the book Atlas Shrugged reflected her view. But this film—at least this first part of a planned trilogy—doesn't pick a fight with faith. In fact, there are no overt references to religion at all. That doesn't mean there are no spiritual concepts to deal with though. And I'll touch on them, too, as we proceed.
Henry is married, but he and his wife, Lillian, are not very fond of each other. Sex between them is shown (briefly, afterwards) to be a cold, loveless affair, driven purely by physical need.
The film ultimately asks us to side with Henry, suggesting that Lillian's demands for him to work less are unfair. He's a man of business, after all, and he does (in the story's ethos) have more important things to do.
It also sanctifies the illicit relationship between Henry and Dagny. "But all I want to do right now is kiss you," he tells Dagny after mentioning the fact that he's married. "What's stopping you?" Dagny says. The answer ends up being nothing. We see the two of them kiss and hop into bed together as the camera, in dim light, concentrates on stylized sexual movements and moans.
Their relationship is considered far more "moral" than Henry's lifeless link to Lillian. And that may have a lot to do with Rand's objectivist philosophy, which calculates that "reasonable" self-interest trumps all other considerations. "Rand illustrates what a relationship between two self-actualized, equal human beings can be," writes Mmimi Reisel Gladstein in Ayn Rand and Feminism: An Unlikely Alliance. "Rand denies the existence of a split between the physical and the mental, the desires of the flesh and the longings of the spirit."
Elsewhere, temperamental tycoon Francisco d'Anconia is seen at parties surrounded by beautiful, scantily clad women.
A train crashes: We hear the brakes squeal and later see news footage of the flaming wreckage. Television newscasts show scenes of violent mayhem. An oil field burns.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. Infrequent interjections of "b‑‑ch," b‑‑tard," d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑" and "p‑‑‑." Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
We see characters consume wine, martinis and a variety of other mixed drinks. Cigars and cigarettes secure small roles.
Other Negative Elements
Folks lie, mislead, demean or threaten others for both personal and governmental gain.
Greed is good.
When Gordon Gecko said these words in Wall Street, director Oliver Stone meant them sardonically. For him, Gecko was a symbol of America gone wrong.
But in Atlas Shrugged, greed truly is good. Ayn Rand advocated "rational selfishness," and her heroes here make no apologies for wanting to make a buck.
"My only goal is to make money," Henry retorts when asked about his motives by one of his underlings.
"Yeah, but you shouldn't say it," the other man says.
Rand's brand of unfettered capitalism, self-determination and small government has made her a posthumous darling for some in the modern political arena. And her stance on the roles industrialists, unions, the government and common workers should play in technological and social advancement are discussed or echoed in legislative chambers, news magazines and coffee houses across the country. Underpinning it all is Rand's idea of ethical egoism—that the only moral way to live is to live for oneself. As a mysterious character says in the film, a true capitalist should be "someone who knows what it's like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profit of his energy."
That's a view that informs the movie's take on sexuality as it urges viewers to root for Henry to abandon his wedding vows. But it's most noticeable in the area of philanthropy. I would be loathe to make an argument that laissez-faire capitalism somehow runs counter to the tenets of Christianity. But the core philosophy that undergirds Rand's teachings (and, indeed, this film), is something we all must grapple with.
The key characters in Atlas Shrugged strongly believe that selflessness is unproductive and defeatist. "You really don't care about helping the underprivileged at all, do you?" a charity-involved friend asks Henry. And Henry readily agrees. Dagny later asks Henry, "What is with all these stupid altruistic urges?" much as you or I might wonder, with exasperation, why so many people watch Jersey Shore.
"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others," Rand wrote in her column titled "Introducing Objectivism." "He must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life."
That's not compatible with what Jesus taught, of course. He asked us to humble ourselves. To deny ourselves. To sacrifice our personal desires. To care for the widows and orphans.
When the government tries to, essentially, bribe Henry to get out of the steel business, Henry refuses. The man who makes the offer is aghast. Why, he asks Henry, do you want to eek out a living working so hard when you can make a fortune by giving it up? "Because it's mine," Henry thunders. "Do you understand the concept? It's mine."
In one sense, he's right, of course: It is his. Any small-government advocate worth his salt will tell you that Rearden should be allowed to do with it as he pleases. And the concept of "mine"—of private property, of robust business, even of individual rights—is woven deeply into the fabric of our nation.
But for those who believe in a personal God, one who gave us our lives and talents and even His son, we understand it's not really ours: It's His. We're called to hold our possessions loosely and to use them freely … for His good, not our own.
Ayn Rand, whatever you think of her sociopolitical philosophies, sidesteps that salient point.