If you ask the average film critic about the new motion picture adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, they will tell you it is a horrible movie. If you ask the average conservative or libertarian, they will tell you it is a great flick. Objectively, it is a mediocre movie at best. Subjectively, it is one of the best mediocre movies you’ll ever see.
If it has become a Hollywood cliché to make movies about greedy capitalists versus the benevolent government, Rand’s famous novel radically restructures this pedestrian narrative. Atlas Shrugged is about a greedy government that conspires with greedy capitalists to stop other greedy capitalists from making products which, incidentally, make them benevolent.
Confused? You should be.
By definition, a pure capitalist system consists of an actual free market in which investors are rewarded or punished based on their own level of risk without any promotion or protection from government. We do not have this type of free market in the United States today.
What most Americans now call “capitalism” is actually “crony capitalism” or “corporatism,” in which big business conspires with big government to enrich an elite few at the expense of the many. The bank bailouts were a perfect example of this.
Atlas Shrugged is about championing the creative talents and power of the individual over the often cumbersome and destructive demands of the collective — governmental, corporatist, or otherwise. This is undoubtedly a right-wing sentiment, and, not surprisingly, conservatives have applauded this movie as much as critics have panned it. Admittedly, the acting, cinematography, and overall quality of Atlas Shrugged is not the greatest, but it’s also not the worst either. Therefore, if many conservatives’ hyper enthusiasm for this movie is transparently ideological — is the same not possibly true of its critics’ complaints?
Compare Atlas Shrugged‘s reception to James Cameron’s critically acclaimed action fantasy film Avatar. While Avatar was rightly recognized for its groundbreaking special effects, as a story, Avatar is mediocre at best. It is fun and entertaining, but it is not artistically exceptional and it certainly didn’t deserve to be nominated for best picture.
At the Huffington Post, Michael Carmichael summarized why liberal Hollywood really thought Avatar was so fantastic: “In a nutshell, Avatar‘s political message is: The American military-industrial complex will utterly destroy the known universe.” Carmichael’s contention was backed up by the many critics who noted Cameron’s Iraq War allusions and Avatar‘s not-so-subtle antiwar and anti-Bush themes.
As a conservative opponent of the Iraq War, I actually appreciated Cameron’s political message while admitting that Avatar, objectively, wasn’t that great a film. Many conservatives agreed. Many liberals didn’t.
And now the exact reverse is true concerning Atlas Shrugged. If you’re a film fan looking for a great movie, Atlas Shrugged probably isn’t it. If you’re a conservative looking for a great movie, Atlas Shrugged will likely be it. The mania is for the message, and conservatives should be no more hesitant in their enthusiasm for Rand’s anti-collectivism than liberals were for Cameron’s anti-Bushism. Indeed, if conservatives ran Hollywood instead of liberals, Atlas Shrugged might even be up for an Oscar.
Interestingly, Avatar and Atlas actually share a philosophical point, but it is a point I fear most liberals and conservatives will miss: That the same military-industrial complex liberals’ deplored in Avatar represents precisely the sort of corporatism Rand also deplores in Atlas Shrugged. While liberals might hate Rand’s attacks on socialist domestic programs, they would probably have admired her opposition to the Vietnam War. And while conservatives might applaud Rand’s attacks on domestic socialism, many still remain the strongest champions of foreign socialism — i.e. foreign aid, wars for profit, and overseas policies often based on corporate interests.
Rand, who was by no means a non-interventionist, nevertheless recognized that “foreign policy is merely a consequence of domestic policy.” What many liberals consider good government is actually a welfare state, the constant failure of which perpetuates the rationale for its own existence. What many conservatives consider proper defense is actually nothing more than a warfare state, that’s not only every bit as unnecessary as the welfare, but the perpetuity of which is based on a similar rationale. Rand wrote, “Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by producing.”
Despite conservative rhetoric to the contrary, war without reason does not protect American freedom. It diminishes it. This is something Ayn Rand understood, and it is something any champion of individualism over collectivism should understand too.
Jack Hunter co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Southern Avenger commentaries can be heard every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 AM WTMA.