Atlas Shrugged: Talking Is Not a Free Action

Atlas Shrugged: Talking Is Not a Free Action April 3, 2015

Atlas Shrugged Part II: The Strike

The hallmark of Atlas Shrugged is the character filibuster: the story grinds to a halt so that one of Rand’s heroes can deliver a long, apparently extemporaneous speech, explaining the philosophical grounding and moral implications of Objectivism in grueling detail. These often stretch to absurd lengths: for example, Francisco’s speech at Jim Taggart’s wedding about the importance of money is about 2,600 words long. Most people speak at about 120 words per minute, so in real life, this would be a solid twenty minutes of uninterrupted talking.

In a book, that’s no problem. The action just recedes into the background to make room for a few pages filled with solid chunks of dialogue. But in a movie, you don’t have that luxury. The other characters can’t just disappear while the hero is speaking; they have to do something.

Here’s how the filmmakers tried to handle that problem in their rendition of Francisco’s money speech. First, they cut it to barely 10% of its book length. That was probably a necessity, as not even the most hardcore Rand fan would have been likely to sit through a twenty-minute lecture plunked into the middle of the movie, like a hard pebble in an ice cream sundae.

But even that trimming can’t disguise the problem here. In the movie, as in the book, Francisco actually interrupts Jim’s toast at his own wedding reception. Yet even though Jim’s guests are a bunch of evil looters who resent Francisco and despise every word he’s saying, they inexplicably stand in respectful silence and listen while he talks at them, even while he insults them.

If this happened in reality, people wouldn’t be so cooperative. They’d shout him down, bombard him with objections from every side, call for him to be thrown out so everyone else can enjoy the wedding in peace. Instead, they only occasionally pipe up with feeble and convenient objections for him to swat away. And while Jim finally does order Francisco out, it’s only after he’s gotten to say everything he wanted to say.

The same problem arises in the scene where Hank Rearden is put on trial for illegally selling Rearden Metal. A trial scene, at least, is a time-worn technique for letting one character speak without interruption – except that even here, the setup is bizarre. Just as in the book, Hank’s judges tell him to enter a plea, he refuses, and the judges inexplicably permit him to monologue about why the court is illegitimate rather than comply with their request. No competent court or judge would ever allow this kind of circus. And when they do speak, it’s just to help him emphasize a point he wants to make. (“Mr. Rearden, are you really saying you work for nothing but your own profit? Is that what you want us, your listeners, to know about the philosophy that inspires you?”)

Even if the judges are going to permit him to argue, there’s no reason they can’t reply. Even within the terms of a Rand villain’s philosophy, there are perfectly good answers they could give. Why not argue that society can’t exist if everyone can decide for themselves whether to obey the law? Why not point out that the era of unregulated business regularly led to on-the-job deaths, child labor and other abuses? Why not argue, even, that the Fair Share law under which he’s being prosecuted creates and protects more jobs than we would otherwise have if naked self-interest was the only rule?

But because this might create doubt in the viewers’ mind as to whose side you’re supposed to be on, the script doesn’t permit it. In the true spirit of a Randian adaptation, the filmmakers had to stamp out any flicker of moral ambiguity, so they force the judges to sit spellbound. Just to drive that point home, the scene ends with the spectators rising to give Hank a standing ovation – even though his speech didn’t strike me as especially compelling. The only thing he’s said is that he won’t cooperate with the court and that he rejects the idea of regulation that can tell him what to do. (The book at least tried to cast Hank’s speech as a noble stand on principle, but the abridged version presented in this scene doesn’t allow that.)

This seems to be the way that Objectivists imagine people should react to their ideas in the real world: when they expound their ideas, their audience should sit in rapt silence while all socialists should be dumbstruck and unable to reply. When a millionaire executive says he doesn’t care about the good of others, people should burst into wild cheers and applause. In this movie, they can script a world where all of that happens just as they imagine. The disastrous box-office reception, however, perhaps goes to show that people recognize the overwhelming implausibility of this vision.

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