The relative box-office success of the independent film "Atlas Shrugged," based on the bestselling Ayn Rand novel that features the character John Galt, has reportedly surprised Hollywood insiders who took a pass on the script. It shouldn't have.
The box-office results show that cinematic clashes between self-made industrialists and government bureaucrats fit this moment in American history snugly, addressing both tea party sentiments and polls that show growing pessimism about the direction of the country.
"Atlas Shrugged: Part I" (Parts II and III are reportedly in the planning stages) cost $10 million and wrapped in 26 days. Last weekend when it opened, it reported a respectable $5,640 per-theater take, with a Duluth, Ga., theater leading the way with more than $25,000 in receipts. In all, the movie earned $1.7 million in 244 theaters the first weekend, enough to warrant further distribution.
With no studio backing for a public-relations blitz, co-producers John Aglialoro and Harmon Kaslow pushed the movie out through various "Randian" fan networks and tea party channels, including Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. Despite critical panning (Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called it a "model of mediocrity") and some admittedly two-dimensional characters, the movie seems to have struck a chord among at least some concerned Americans.
“People are hungry for what these characters are saying,” Mr. Aglialoro told The Washington Times. “They’re telling the government, ‘Just leave me alone. Let me hang onto my life and pursue my passions and rational self-interest.' That’s what will benefit society.”
For their part, critics see "Atlas Shrugged" as a dangerous balm "for conservatives, free marketeers, predatory capitalists, and people who hate the government and the poor," in the words of Huffington Post columnist Jonathan Kim.
But if Sarah Palin is one populist face of the amorphous tea party movement, Ms. Rand, the Russian-born philosopher and author, has become its intellectual patron. References to her works rival Thomas Jefferson quotes on tea party placards.
The founder of "Objectivist" philosophy, Rand centered her beliefs on a basic point: America's foundational quest to raise individual wealth and happiness through free agency and hard work is its enduring legacy, and its enduring hope. But as tea party activists argue, those ideas are today (as in "Atlas Shrugged") locked in a struggle with oppressive collectivist forces – often epitomized by President Obama, bent on transforming America into an outpost of the eurozone.
Set in 2016, "Atlas Shrugged" the movie presents two industrialists – railroad exec Dagny Taggart and steel magnate Henry Rearden – fighting against irrational government officials colluding with socialist business magnates to tax to the ground those who are trying to end the dystopia. In the background is a central mystery: "Who is John Galt?"
Rand is a peculiar choice for the tea party, critics say. Although she advocated individual liberty, she was also an atheist – a point that, one could argue, runs counter to polls that show tea partyers tend to be socially conservative and religious. Even her views of democracy should disqualify the embrace of her ideas by the tea party, critics add. Rand "espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both fundamentally anti-American and deeply at odds with the tea party's own 'we the people' cause," Vladimir Shlapentokh wrote in the Monitor last year.
"Rand, almost above all else, championed the individual over the collective," adds columnist Megan Gibson in the Guardian this week. "The notion that a populist movement is using her name and economic philosophies to mobilise their broader political goal is laughable."
Rand adherents reject many of those criticisms, saying they're simplistic and misconstrue her underlying beliefs. "It is a philosophy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, born out of an immigrant’s love for America," writes Vanderbilt University student Jesse Jones, a member of Young Americans for Liberty.
But it's also true that many Rand supporters in the tea party may simply be laying aside some of her social views to focus on her broader writings about individual rights being "the moral sanction of a positive" – as well as her ideas about how markets ultimately respond to consumer and government signals.
Whatever the case, all the attention has been good for Rand's estate (she died in 1982). The tea party protests in the past few years – over everything from stimulus packages to health-care reform – have corresponded with spikes in the sales of Rand books.
As with the put-upon industrialists in the film, the story of how "Atlas Shrugged" the movie got made hints at individual perseverance and people fighting oppressive forces, in this case supposed Hollywood liberals.
Aglialoro – the CEO of a gym-equipment manufacturer, a poker player, and one of Forbes's capitalists to watch in 2011 – tried and failed for 18 years to get studio interest in the project. Sensing that the zeitgeist moment was right (plus nearing the end of his rights to the book), he eventually opened his own checkbook and turned to Mr. Kaslow, a Hollywood entertainment attorney, to help him assemble a production team and quickly shoot the movie.
"Atlas Shrugged" may ultimately not break any box-office records, and it may, in the end, have a limited reach – seeing that it did well in Duluth but flopped in Mobile, Ala. But it also represents an elevation of conservative ideas in the popular culture, as the tea party movement continues to make its influence known from Washington to Hollywood.
“We’re lucky that the relevance of the book to what’s going on today has steadily increased over time,” Kaslow tells The Wall Street Journal. “So that’s made the film more accessible and more embraced by the various political factions that [subscribe] to Ayn Rand's philosophy. And we haven’t resisted their embracing it.”