'Atlas Shrugged:' Is it really the movie Hollywood doesn't want you to see?
If you regularly watch Fox News, as I do, you've probably heard all about "Atlas Shrugged," the new movie version of the iconic Ayn Rand bestseller that opens in 300 theaters this Friday. (Yes, on tax filing day, which must surely be a sly Randian joke.) The party line at Fox is that "Atlas Shrugged," as host Sean Hannity put it, is the movie "liberal Hollywood doesn't want you to see." In fact, it's the movie's own marketing hook. If you do a Google search for the phrase "the movie Hollywood doesn't want you to see," the first thing you find is the film's Facebook page.
Of course, it would be more accurate to say that "Atlas Shrugged" is the film Hollywood didn't want to make, but that doesn't have quite the same forbidden fruit zing to it. As my colleague Rebecca Keegan has reported, the film was actually in development at Lionsgate, with Angelina Jolie attached to a script by heavyweight writer-director Randall Wallace. The project fell apart, though not because of any liberal plot. The film's financier, John Aglialoro, wanted a more faithful version of the book, which even many of its admirers will admit is something of an unlikely commercial property. Agliatoro eventually handed the filmmaking reins to "One Tree Hill" actor Paul Johansson, who had never directed a feature before.
So Aglialoro is essentially distributing the film himself. He's already had tastemaker screenings for such influential conservatives as Big Hollywood's Andrew Breitbart and House Speaker John Boehner. But will moviegoers flock to a film just because its backers say it's a film Hollywood liberals didn't want them to see? After all, didn't that scheme work pretty well for Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which cast Gibson as an embattled outsider whose film had been turned down everywhere in la-la-liberal Hollywood?
Of course, to embrace that narrative, whether with "Passion of the Christ" or with "Atlas Shrugged," you'd have to be willing to conveniently forget that 20th Century Fox, one of the biggest studios in town, is owned by -- ahem -- conservative kingpin Rupert Murdoch.
With "Atlas Shrugged," you'd also have to ignore the reviews, not just from those pesky liberal critics who would never give Ayn Rand a fair shake, but from P.J. O'Rourke, perhaps the most distinctive conservative cultural critic of our time. Even though he's a die-hard fan of Rand, O'Rourke admits that the movie is a stinker. As he writes:
"Atlas shrugged. And so did I. The movie version of Ayn Rand’s novel treats its source material with such formal, reverent ceremoniousness that the uninitiated will feel they’ve wandered without a guide into the midst of the elaborate and interminable rituals of some obscure exotic tribe. Meanwhile, members of that tribe of 'Atlas Shrugged' fans will be wondering why director Paul Johansson doesn’t knock it off with the incantations, sacraments and recitations of liturgy and cut to the human sacrifice. ... The movie’s acting is borrowed from 'Dallas,' although the absence of Larry Hagman’s skill at subtly underplaying villainous roles is to be regretted. Staging and action owe a debt to 'Dynasty' — except, on 'Dynasty,' there usually was action. ... In 'Atlas Shrugged' Rand set out to prove that self-interest is vital to mankind. This, of course, is the whole point of free-market classical liberalism and has been since Adam Smith invented free-market classical liberalism by proving the same point. Therefore trying to make a movie of 'Atlas Shrugged' is like trying to make a movie of 'The Wealth of Nations.' But Adam Smith had the good sense to leave us with no plot, characters or melodramatic clashes of will so that we wouldn’t be tempted to try."
I think what P.J. is saying, in the nicest possible way, is that maybe the trashy Angelina Jolie version of the movie wouldn't have been so bad after all.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Paul Johansson at a HuffPost Comedy event at the Roxy Theater last February in West Hollywood. Credit: Angela Weiss / Getty Images