“Steve Jobs died,” says John Aglialoro. “But let’s say he disappeared and left a little note that said: ‘Who is John Galt?’ Hey, where the hell’s Steve Jobs? I don’t know. It’s only Earth. Did he get in a spaceship? Where’d he go? In 2012, we’ve got men and women going on strike.”
Aglialoro is the co-producer of the Atlas Shrugged film trilogy, and he is full of rhetorical questions. It’s Sept.18, and we’re sitting across a table at the Heritage Foundation shortly before the first-ever screening of Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike. Aglialoro’s co-producer, Harmon Kaslow, sits nearby, sporting one of the Atlas pins that sell for $14.95 on the film’s website. Washington is still talking about the video of Mitt Romney deriding the “47 percent” of voters too dependent on the federal teat to vote Republican.
So Aglialoro wants me to think of Atlas Shrugged as a history of the future. “Most entitlements are promises made by politicians to the unwilling,” he says. “We’ve got generations of people on welfare. That’s not because there weren’t job opportunities, or education, or anything like that. We’ve got a problem of greed on the level of the entitlement class. Not the producers and the entrepreneurs that are creating the tax revenue. They’re the 53 percent. If we get to the tipping point, 57, 58 percent, then you’re going to see people saying: How do I go on strike?”
In the novel, and in these films, the “strike” is the literal disappearance of industrialists and inventors. The 2012 edition of our political dictionary calls these people the “job creators.” They built that. And so on. The Bible-sized novel is broken into three long “books,” so Aglialoro and Kaslow have broken it, faithfully, into three two-hour movies.
In Part 1, released early last year, we met the rail company COO Dagny Taggart, the only member of her family business who’d rather take bold, sexy risks than wait for doughy bureaucrats to redistribute wealth for her. She meets Hank Rearden, a billionaire metallurgist who’s invented a product “cheaper, stronger, and lighter” than steel. They build a new line and name it after John Galt, a mysterious genius who—coincidentally!—was the first of his kind to vanish and leave a bunch of grubbing, venal government bureaucrats behind to “loot” his good works.
Since that movie came out, and made back around a quarter of its budget (“Zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes,” laughs Aglialoro), the Atlas story has mushroomed. Rep. Paul Ryan was picked to join Mitt Romney’s Republican ticket. A scandal-curious media dug into Ryan’s recent past and discovered that he loved Rand, loved Atlas, had given a speech about it to the Atlas Society—of which Aglialoro’s a member.
“The effect of Romney choosing Paul Ryan was bringing Ayn Rand back into the news,” says Kaslow. “From our perspective, promoting this movie, we need to connect the dots for someone who’s interested in economics, get him or her interested in the film.”
After a short break, we head in from the meeting room to the screening room. For all the mockery, for all the liberal gloating about box-office numbers, the first Atlas film accidentally cast too many successful actors. Taylor Schilling, the original Dagny Taggart, went on to co-star in The Lucky One and the upcoming Ben Affleck movie about the Iran hostage crisis. “She’s a bona fide movie star now,” says Aglialoro. So she’s been replaced by Samantha Mathis, a ’90s star who’s been mounting a kind of comeback. The rest of the cast is also new. It’s libertarian cinema by way of Doctor Who.
And it completely changes the tone of the story. Schilling’s Taggart was all ice and sneers, storming into meetings without disturbing her bouffant. Mathis replaces the sneer with a pout. “Where are they?” she asks her assistant Eddie, as they ride through an emptied-out Manhattan, fueled by $40/gallon gas. “Where are the people who could make a difference?”
“I’m sitting next to one of them,” says Eddie. Taggart/Mathis holds back a sigh.
Our Rearden in Atlas I was Grant Bowler, who treated the character like a smart fed-up tech whiz beset by Asperger’s syndrome. He’s been replaced by Jason Beghe, who woke up hung-over and crammed his mouth full of gravel. His wife catches him coming home from a night with Dagny (in a very un-Rand touch, we don’t see them having sex), and he dares her to divorce him while he changes into fresh clothes.
This casting change definitely works. Rearden has to deliver the big speech of Part II, when he’s called in to a star chamber for selling his metal to a friend and violating the government’s new “Fair Share” law. (In the novel, it’s the “Equalization of Opportunity” law.) On the page, Rearden’s speech is pretentious in all the best ways. “It is not your particular policy I challenge, but your moral premise,” he says. “If it were true that men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above, and against my own—I would refuse.” Onscreen, Rearden/Beghe boils this down into a short defense of “job creators.” And it works! The Rand-curious audience wants to stand up and cheer for this hard-working, word-chewing businessman who’s just trying to pour some damn metal.
But that really is the high point. We get two action scenes—a plane chase and two trains colliding in the “Taggart Tunnel”—but the fullness of Rand’s message can only be delivered through boardroom scenes and phone calls and meetings in Washington. Most of these scenes are deadly. Your fun, as a viewer, may come from an impromptu game of “hey, it’s that guy!” The chairman of the Taggart board—Biff from Back to the Future. The “head of state” (not president)—Ray Wise, the evil dad from Twin Peaks. The talkative security guard—funny enough, that’s Teller of Penn & Teller, protecting her from people waving “We Are the 99%!” signs.
When the third installment comes, in July 2014, we’ll probably get another all-new cast. “It’s hard to lock people down,” says Aglialoro. It’s the great cultural paradox of the Tea Party age. Rand’s dramatic work of dystopian horror can teach Republicans how to think, but it’s teeth-pullingly hard to keep distributors and audiences interested.
“The left dismisses Ayn Rand,” he says. “The version of her that they attack is childish, it’s a cartoon.” But he understands why.” I wish she didn’t say ‘selfishness’ as she did. That she was for ‘selfishness.’ She was human, and probably meant that in a rhetorical way. But if she was on this earth again, maybe she’d put it another way.”