Unbridled Capitalism's Staunch Defender

'Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" turns its lens on a novelist, philosopher, and public intellectual who became a small-scale celebrity during the 1950s and '60s. Unfortunately, the movie doesn't live up to its subject and is likely to remain a long shot for the best-documentary Academy Award.

Born in Russia not long before the Communist revolution, Rand developed a deep hatred for the Soviet system's emphasis on self-sacrifice and collectivity. Passionate about movies and individualism, she emigrated to the United States and made her way to Hollywood, where no less a mogul than Cecil B. DeMille took her under his wing and helped her find work in a studio script department.

It apparently didn't dawn on Rand that moviemaking, a team enterprise from start to finish, was hardly an ideal profession for her fiercely independent spirit. Hollywood treated her reasonably well, though, and introduced her to actor Frank O'Connor, who became her husband of more than 50 years. Turning to novels and nonfiction, she wrote several books and made her mark on bestseller lists and TV talk shows before her death in the early '80s.

Rand is best known for two massive novels, "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," which dramatize her philosophy (Objectivism) through flamboyant stories about larger-than-life characters who triumph over altruism, religion, and other petty proclivities of modern society. "The Fountainhead" also became a 1949 movie, with a clearly bewildered Gary Cooper muddling through her wordy screenplay.

Unabashedly romantic in style, story, and subject, Rand's books sold increasingly well even as critics questioned their far-fetched plots and dubious views. Liberals derided her love of laissez faire capitalism, conservatives applauded her obsession with individualism, and she attacked both groups with gusto, regarding liberals as self-loathing weaklings and conservatives as mushy-minded frauds.

All of which makes Rand an excellent subject for a serious nonfiction film. "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" assembles the necessary materials, from childhood snapshots to her TV conversations with Mike Wallace.

Instead of analyzing her ideas and exploring her impact, however, director Michael Paxton turns his movie into a syrupy commercial for her philosophy. Not one opponent of Rand's ideology gets to counter the earnest anecdotes of her friends and colleagues - unless Phil Donahue's politely skeptical questions are meant to cover this ground. From the film's account of American history, you'd never guess that unregulated capitalism might breed monopolies, child labor, and other well-documented concerns.

It's as if Oliver Stone told the story of "Wall Street" financier Gordon Gekko without mentioning the downside of his "greed is good" credo. Rand thought greed was one of humanity's greatest inventions, and that notion deserves more scrutiny than Paxton and company choose to give it.

* Not rated. Contains brief discussion of an adulterous affair.

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