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Atlas Shrugged Part II: Better than Ayn Rand Deserves

I liked Atlas Shrugged Part II more than Part I, and in fact, more than the book. I know this will be heresy for Rand Followers, so let me explain.

The weakness of Ayn Rand is that her characters are abstractions. Each character stands for an idea or a type. In a way, this is odd for a champion of individualism: Her characters are not actual individuals, but stereotypes, archetypes, or caricatures. The heroes stand up, give long speeches, and the other characters actually listen. Not too realistic.

 

The characters of Atlas Shrugged II are more human than either the book or the first movie installment. The second movie has a completely different cast, older and less classically beautiful than the cast of Part I. (I imagine there is a story behind the recasting partway through a trilogy, but I haven’t discovered what it is.) The more mature Dagny and Hank of Part II are more appealing as people, precisely because they are more individual. In fact, the only person in the movie who was really movie-star handsome was the revolting and phony James Taggart.

The camera work of the newer movie contributes to the more humane look too. There are more close-ups, more lingering shots of human faces. This movie is filled with people, not archetypes.

You can care about these characters because they are your fellow human beings. When Hank Reardon makes his dramatic courtroom speech the applause from the courtroom audience is totally credible in the movie. In the book, not so much.Rand wanted you to respect her characters for their achievements. But you could care about the Hank Reardon and Dagny Taggart of Atlas Shrugged II even if they got hit by a truck and were in a coma.

This brings me to one serious misstep in the film. In the closing sequence, Dagny crashes her plane in Atlantis where the Randian supermen live. They do not run to the wreckage to help her. They walk, deliberately, slowly. I suppose we are meant to think that they are calculating their own odds of survival or perhaps the moral worth of the people who might be trapped in the wreckage. And when John Galt finally makes it to the plane, (which appears to be in no danger of blowing up) he extends his arm to Dagny. She extends her arm to him. It is all very dramatic, but honestly, it looks like he is going to drag her out of the airplane by the arm.

Uh, wait a minute. This is not very good emergency medical care. EMT professionals would run, not walk. They would reassure the victim. They would not move her, until they had a team of people on hand to move her without further injury. They would do all of this for any person, no questions asked.So we are meant to think that this secret island of incredibly capable super-heroes cannot execute even minimally competent EMT procedures.

I have often thought that everything good and decent in Ayn Rand came from Aristotle, while everything dark and creepy came from Nietzsche. The emphasis on reason and its connection to human happiness comes straight out of Aristotle. The triumph of the human will, and the measuring of moral worth by achievement, all comes from Nietzsche.

Since Rand wrote her book, we have seen a different type of hero: the hero who runs into burning buildings on 9/11. The firemen didn’t ask any questions about the moral worth of the people they were saving. Rather, they were living out their vocation as public-safety officers, a vocation that from the beginning involved the possibility of self-sacrifice.

Rand’s variety of individualism cannot comprehend self-sacrifice. But there are varieties of individualism, just as there are varieties of heroism.There is such a thing, for instance, as Christian individualism. Each and every person came into existence because God willed and loved that person into existence. Each and every person has intrinsic value, independently of their ability to produce anything. Christians believe that each and every person is morally accountable to God.

And even more deeply, Christians believe that God has a personal plan for each and every person, uniquely tailored for that person. To be the very best person you can be, to achieve your greatest “value,” the individual has a responsibility to discover and to follow this plan that God has devised for them. It simply will not do to blindly emulate others, or to do what you are told, or to be the “best” as some particular human endeavor. No second-handers. Your path is far more unique than the intellectual achievement held up by Rand, or the economic equality held up by egalitarians. No Nietzsche-styledÜbermenschen either.

So this is why I liked Part II of the Atlas Shrugged movie more than than the book. It preserves what is good in Rand’s vision. The movie captures Rand’s dystopia of an economy gone off the cliff from stifling and finally inhuman over-regulation. The movie sparks the moral indignation that I think Rand hoped we would feel. But the movie version avoids the worst of Rand’s excesses.

Until that final sequence. Maybe they’ll get it someday.

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