A beautiful woman, abandoned by a man she counted on, near the end of her strength, the fires of perdition burning in the background, collapses at a split rail fence. Before it happened at the end of the new “Atlas Shrugged” movie, it happened to Scarlett O’Hara.
The Free Agent cannot really argue with the critical excoriation of “Atlas” because she cannot view it without her knowledge of the book. She had trouble finishing even thumbnail reviews citing Tea Parties, Bernie Madoff, etc., or implying Rand’s book portrays the Republican party’s Nirvana. (Oh, how those Republicans love to keep their distance from big business!) Roger Ebert, a most intelligent observer, found the movie incomprehensible and un-cinematic, “The dialogue seems to have been ripped throbbing with passion from the pages of Investors’ Business Daily.” Fair enough. It takes a bit of effort to acclimate oneself to Ayn Rand’s writing, and lines like, “Why all these stupid altruistic urges, it isn’t charitable or fair. What is it with people these days?” enter the ear canal with the subtlety of the Taggart Transcontinental.
The FA merely points out that the movie avoids the worst possible crimes—trying to up the characters’ “likeability” for instance—and that for her, watching the movie was analogous to reading the book.
It mystifies The Free Agent that women don’t tend to love Rand or Dagny Taggart, her railroad-running, competitor-smackdowning, lover-taking heroine. When she tries to emplace the character with others in the history of cinema, The Free Agent finds herself back by that other fence, the one at the turn-off to Tara, the one where Rhett mauled Scarlett (Margaret Mitchell and Rand are sisters under the skin in at least one way), then abandoned her to go fight the last five minutes of the Civil War. Finding herself unexpectedly responsible for feeding the remnants of the plantation, Scarlett brings in a cotton crop, then expands and runs a saw mill. Later, Rhett accuses her of putting her love for the lumber business above him and their child.
Other movie heroines have had jobs, of course. Most were undertaken while waiting for a man or coping with the unexpected loss of one, and the plurality pursued the safely feminine occupations of actress, secretary, and waitress. Once in a great while an entrepreneur appears, frequently—weirdly—expanding on her knack for baking pies.
What Dagny and Scarlett share that no reviewer of “Atlas” seems to apprehend is the raw love and pride in production. Stephen Sondheim expressed the creative drive with supreme economy: “ . . . I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.” Dagny and Hank Reardon get so aroused riding on the John Galt Line they copulate. Scarlett, who never really has a soul mate, closes her eyes and revels in the smell of her lumber rebuilding Atlanta.
Perhaps the productive drive is too rare to resonate with reviewers.
Because it is joyous building, productivity, the reaffirmation that reality is real, that “Atlas Shrugged” exalts. The Free Agent assumes the producers, cast, and crew wallowed in it while delivering Part I, against long odds and short money.
She fervently hopes the rest of the trilogy will not suffer stillbirth.