Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting

Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting March 20, 2015

Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike

In 2011, a wealthy businessman named John Aglialoro produced a movie based on the first part of Atlas Shrugged. Aglialoro imagined himself as John Galt, boldly speaking the truth to a complacent world. As it turned out, he was more like Ivy Starnes, the inheritor of a famous brand who thought people would flock to buy an inferior product just because of the name stamped on it. The film landed with a resounding thud at the box office, earning back less than one-quarter of its $20 million budget.

In spite of this loss, Aglialoro and his co-producer Harmon Kaslow forged on, adapting Part II of the book into a sequel subtitled The Strike. If only they’d listened to Ayn Rand, they would have known that the free market is never wrong – as was proven when the second film flopped even more dramatically than the first one.

What did they do wrong? For starters, there’s an all-new cast, and I do mean all: every actor who was in the first movie has been replaced (we’ll get to that later). There was also a substantially reduced budget this time around, which took a toll on the production values.

But I think what really stung was the diminished quality of the acting. Even the first movie had moments of enjoyable pulp absurdity and scenery-chewing, but the actors in this one seem like they just want to get this over with. It appears the director told them to play their roles with unflinching, iron-willed determination; the problem is that unflinching, iron-willed determination looks a lot like dull surprise. The first movie had the same problem, but this one has it much worse.

Here’s an example. The movie opens in medias res, with a scene where the new Dagny, Samantha Mathis, is flying a plane over Colorado in hot pursuit of John Galt’s plane. This is a good directorial choice that plunges the audience right into the thick of the action. And as I mentioned, this was one of the few good scenes in Part II of the book. Rand conjures a taut internal monologue as Dagny pursues her elusive prey, scorning danger in her determination not to let the magic motor be snatched away from her.

Alas, none of that comes through in the movie. Mathis plays the scene with a studied blankness, never altering her faintly quizzical look, even as the music pounds dramatically and the movie shows her plane diving and swooping around jagged mountain cliffs (or when she flies through what appears to be a wormhole). Worse still is when she realizes she’s about to crash, and she blurts out, “Who is John Galt?” In the book, it’s a raw cry of defiance at the danger about to claim her. In the movie, it’s a sullen mutter that sounds like a teenager who’s just realized his parents are going to ground him:

Jason Beghe, who now plays Hank Rearden, has the same problem. He has a gravelly-voiced charisma and a sardonic smirk that I actually found appropriate, given Hank’s blue-collar background. (It almost sounds like his throat was roughened from years of breathing in foundry smoke.) The problem is that it seems to be the only expression he’s capable of.

You may recall the scene where Lillian Rearden discovers Hank is cheating on her. In the book, he stands at attention like a soldier, answering her questions and threats with outward calm, but under such tension that his shirt is damp with sweat, just barely keeping himself from exploding in rage. If an actor could have played that the way Rand wrote it, it would have been a terrific scene. Instead, he responds with the same smirking, disdainful shrug, as if he doesn’t take this seriously and thinks it’s funny that she’s upset. The effect of this tonal schism is to make the two characters seem to be in entirely different movies.

The only actor who seemed to be enjoying himself was Robert Picardo, best known as the holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, here playing Dr. Robert Stadler, the physicist who fell from grace by joining the looters. He has only a few minutes of screen time, but he makes the most of them. But even he can’t redeem the rest of the characters, whom the critics savaged as “bland mediocrity“, “lacks enough sparkle to play the tired mom in the Tide commercial“, “emotionless blocks of ice“, and on and on.

It’s an open question whether the filmmakers didn’t notice the poor performances their actors were putting in, or just didn’t care. In an interview in October 2012, the month this film was released, producer Harmon Kaslow claimed that it would be “an opportunity for swing voters to see what’s going on back in D.C. and help activate them to vote President Obama out of office” (source). That hints at an answer, which is that they suffered from the same curse that afflicts many evangelical Christian movies – the belief that if the message is ideologically acceptable, the presentation isn’t important. You’d think the long string of flops would have taught them otherwise. A piece of propaganda as heavy-handed as this rarely allows for a full range of the human, emotional responses that make a work of art dramatically compelling.

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