Last updated: October 17, 2012 6:09 pm

Rand’s strangely compelling political fantasy

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Atlas Shrugged Part II© Byron J Cohen

Heroic: Samantha Mathis as Dagny Taggart

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, has had a tortuous journey to the screen, but the arrival of its latest instalment could not have been better timed.

As part two of a projected trilogy opens in US cinemas, the country is entering the closing stages of an election campaign dominated by arguments over the book’s central themes: conflict between rich and poor, the revival of a stagnant economy and the malign influence of government on business.

Paul Ryan, the Republican congressman who is stands a good chance of being the next vice-president, has professed a youthful admiration for Rand, although he has disavowed aspects of her thought, including her militant atheism.

Rand is a fascinating figure: a fer­ociously dri­ven woman who produced crudely written but powerful novels that are revered by many.

Atlas Shrugged Part II, like part one before it, is faithful to her character. It is not fun, exactly, and it is certainly not a great work of art. The dialogue feels assembled from a flat-pack, and some visual effects would have looked crude in the 1970s.

Yet for all those flaws, it remains strangely compelling. As an exercise in forcing the viewer to engage with Rand’s ideas, it is undeniably effective.

Like the disappearing entrepreneurs and scientists who are the book’s principal theme, the cast of unknowns from Atlas Shrug­ged Part I has vanished, to be replaced by a set of slightly bigger names, reflecting the new film’s larger budget.

Samantha Mathis as the heroine Dagny Taggart, apparently the only competent senior executive at her family’s railway company, is the most famous.

The new faces are plunged straight into the action where part one left off, in a “near future” economic crisis where an energy shortage has dri­ven the price of petrol to over $42 a gallon, and government regulation is choking the economy.

Although the book was written in the 1950s, there are deliberate attempts to make the setting feel current. Jobless protesters blaming the rich for their plight carry signs saying “we are the 99.98 per cent”.

At a rival demonstration in support of Henry Rearden, the heroic steel boss who is Taggart’s lover, people are waving Tea Party banners. Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor, appears as himself, defending Rearden on his talk show.

The implication that there is some equivalence between President Barack Obama’s administration and the film’s dictatorial Directive 10-289, which gives the government control over the entire economy, may seem like a stretch, although the film’s supporters suggest that is what makes its contemporary relevance so important.

More interesting than the film’s politics is its psychology. Rand believes in the supremacy of heroic individuals: inventors, en­tre­preneurs and artists who contribute to society through their achievements, but owe it nothing. When judging human worth, financial success is the only valid measure.

As Francisco d’Anconia, the commodities tycoon character, says: “Money is made possible only by the men who produce.”

In most Hollywood films, business leaders and the rich are cartoon villains. Here they are heroes, better than other people, and justified in whatever they do because, as Taggart says, they have earned it.

If you know what it is like to fly in a private jet, to have security guards prowl nervously while protesters hammer on the doors, to battle government regulators, or to make decisions that will cost your employees their livelihoods, then Rand is the writer who will take you seriously.

In the film’s collapsing society, business leaders complain that they are not given any “respect”. In a telling detail, a good railway employee who meets Taggart is effusive with his praise, telling her: “Thank you for my job.”

Business leaders who feel under-appreciated in the real world can look to Rand for recognition they crave.

The marketplace, however, suggests this may only ever be a minority opinion. The feeble performance of the film – part one made just $4.6m in US cinemas, according to Box Office Mojo – suggests that appealing to a few heroic individuals is not a successful commercial strategy.

Compare that with the US gross of $408m for The Hunger Games, the first part of a projected tetralogy depicting a future in which the elites are decadent and vicious, and the heroine is a brave, resourceful and lethal teenager from a poor mining community.

The fact that Mitt Romney could well win on November 6 is proof that being rich is no obstacle to being admired by many Americans.

It would probably be a mistake, though, for wealthy people to believe that they are revered in the way that Ayn Rand might like.

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