Atlas Shrugged: Part II is a worthy successor to last year’s Part I, and I am hopeful for its commercial success so that John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow will be able to release a full trilogy and achieve the decades-long dream of bringing the entire story of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to the movie screen. The film is enjoyable and well-paced, and it highlights important lessons for the discerning viewer. The film’s release in the month preceding the US Presidential elections, however, may give some the wrong impression: that either of the two major parties can offer anything close to a Randian alternative to the status quo. Those viewers who are also thinkers, however, will see that the film’s logical implication is that both of these false “alternatives” – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – should be rejected decisively.
While the cast has been replaced entirely, I find the acting to have been an improvement over Part I, with the actors portraying their respective characters with more believability and emotional engagement. Samantha Mathis, in the role of Dagny Taggart, showed clearly the distress of a competent woman who is ultimately unable to keep the world from falling apart. Esai Morales aptly portrayed Francisco d’Anconia’s passion for ideas and his charisma. Jason Beghe also performed well as Hank Rearden – the embattled man of integrity struggling to hold on to his business and creations to the last.
The film emphasizes strongly the distinction between earned success – success through merit and creation – and “success” gained by means of pull. The scene in which two trains collide in the Taggart Tunnel is particularly illustrative in this respect. Kip Chalmers, the politician on his way to a pro-nationalization stump speech, attempts to get the train moving through angry phone calls to “the right people,” thinking that all will be well if he just pulls the proper strings. But the laws of reality – of physics, chemistry, and economics – are unyielding to the mere say-so of the powerful, and the mystique of pull collapses on top of the passengers.
As the world falls apart, the film depicts protesters demanding their “fair share,” holding up signs reminiscent of the “Occupy” movement of 2011 – “We are the 99.98%” is a clear allusion. Yet once the draconian Directive 10-289 is implemented, the protests turn in the other direction, away from the freedom-stifling, creativity-crushing regimentation. Perhaps the protesters are not the same people as those who called for their “fair share” – but the film suggests that the people should be careful about the policies they ask for at the ballot box, lest they be sorely disappointed upon getting them. This caution should apply especially to those who think that Barack Obama’s administration parallels the falling-apart of the world in Atlas Shrugged – and that Mitt Romney’s election would somehow “save” America. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If there is any character in Atlas Shrugged who most resembles Mitt Romney, it is not John Galt. Rather, it is James Taggart – the businessman of pull – the sleek charlatan who will take any position, support any policy, speak any lines in order to advance his influence and power. Patrick Fabian conveyed the essence of James Taggart well – a man who succeeds based on image and not on substance, a man who has a certain polished charisma and an ability to pull the strings of politics – for a while. James Taggart is the essence of the corporatist businessman, a creature who thrives on special political privileges and barriers to entry placed in front of more capable competitors. He can buy elections and political offices – and he can, for a while, delude people by creating a magic pseudo-reality with his words. But words cannot suspend the laws of logic or economics. Ultimately the forces of intellectual and moral decay unleashed by corporatist maneuvering inexorably push the world into a condition that even the purveyors of pull would have preferred to avoid. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, the consequences of economic interventionism are often undesirable even from the standpoint of those who advocated the interventions in the first place. James Taggart is ultimately pushed into accepting Directive 10-289, though his initial plans were much more modest – mostly, a desire to hang onto leadership in the railroad business despite his obvious lack of qualifications for the position. Mitt Romney, by advocating James Taggart’s exact sort of crony corporatism, may well usher in a similar overarching totalitarianism – not because he supports it now (in the sense that Mitt Romney can be said to support anything), but because totalitarianism will be the logical outcome of his policies.
Because, in some respects, Ayn Rand wrote during a gentler time with respect to civil liberties, and the film endeavors to consistently reflect Rand’s emphasis on economic regimentation, there is little focus on the kinds of draconian civil-liberties violations that Americans face today. The real-world version of Directive 10-289 is not a single innovation-stopping decree, but an agglomeration of routine humiliations and outright exercises of violence. The groping and virtual strip-searching by the Transportation Security Administration, the War on Drugs and its accompanying no-knock raids, the paranoid surveillance apparatus of large-scale wiretaps and data interception, and the looming threat of controls over the Internet and indefinite detention without charge – these perils are as damaging as an overarching economic central plan, and they are with us today. While not even the most socialistic or fascistic politicians today would issue a ban on all new technology or a comprehensive freeze of prices and wages, they certainly can and will try to humiliate and physically threaten millions of completely peaceful, innocent Americans who try to innovate and earn an honest living. Obama’s administration has engaged in this sort of mass demoralization ever since the foiled “underwear” bomb plot during Christmas 2009 – but Romney would do more of the same, and perhaps worse. Unlike Obama, who must contend with the pro-civil-liberties wing of his constituency, Romney’s attempts to violate personal freedoms will only be cheered on by the militaristic, jingoistic, security-obsessed faction that is increasingly coming to control the discourse of the Republican Party. There can be no hope for freedom, or for the dignity of an ordinary traveler, employee, or thinker, if Romney is elected.
I encourage the viewers of the film to seriously consider the question, “Who is John Galt?” He is not a Republican. If any man comes close, it is Gary Johnson, a principled libertarian who has shown in practice (not just in rhetoric) his ability and willingness to cut wasteful interventions, balance budgets, and protect civil liberties during two terms as Governor of New Mexico. He staunchly champions personal freedoms, tax reduction, foreign-policy non-interventionism, and a sound currency free of the Federal Reserve system. Gary Johnson was, in fact, a businessman of the Randian ethos – who started as a door-to-door handyman and grew from scratch an enterprise with revenues of $38 million. And, on top of it all, he is a triathlete and ultramarathon runner who climbed Mount Everest in 2003 – clearly demonstrating a degree of ambition, drive, and pride in achievement worthy of a hero of Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand never meant the strike in Atlas Shrugged to be an actual recommendation for how to address the world’s problems. Rather, the strike was an illustration of what would happen if the world was deprived of its best and brightest – the creators and innovators who, despite all obstacles, pursue the path of merit and achievement rather than pull and artificial privilege. Today, it is necessary for each of us to work to keep the motor of the world going by not allowing the purveyors of pull to gain any additional ground. Voting for Mitt Romney will do just the opposite – as Atlas Shrugged: Part II artfully suggests to the discerning viewer.