2012’s Atlas Shrugged: Part II picks up where Part I left off.
The time is still the near future. (Part I specifically set the story as taking place five years into the future. Part II declines to use a specific date but it does feature some news personalities playing themselves so it’s still clearly only meant to be a few years from 2012.) The economy has gotten even worse. The poor are only getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. Under the direction of Head of State Thompson (Ray Wise) and his main economic advisor, Wesley Mouch (Paul McCrane), the government has nationalized nearly every business. Halfway through the film, Thompson declares a national emergency and uses the Fair Share Law to invoke Directive 10-289. All inventors, businessmen, and other creative people are required to sign their patents over to the government and to stop trying to develop now techniques. Wages are frozen. No one can be fired and no one can be hired. Creative thinking is discouraged. Asking questions or expressing doubt is forbidden. People are encouraged to snitch on anyone not following the Directive. Thompson and Mouch insist that it’s for the “good of the people,” and anyone who disagrees runs the risk of being dragged into court and sent to prison for ten years. Meanwhile, gas now costs $42.00 a gallon. One of the funnier moments of the film features someone paying $865.72 to fill up a truck.
Dagny Taggart (Samantha Mathis), the Vice President of Taggart Transcontinental Railways, is still trying to discover who invented an experimental motor that she found hidden away in a mine. The motor could potentially change the way that goods are transported but it appears to be missing one component. Unfortunately, all of the great scientists and inventors have been vanishing, with many of them leaving behind notes that ask, “Who is John Galt?” Meanwhile, Dagny’s lover, Hank Rearden (Jason Beghe), fights to protect Rearden Metal from being taken over by the government and Dagny’s brother, James (Patrick Fabian), sells out to Wesley Mouch with the end result being that there’s no one left at Taggart Transcontinental with the intelligence or the experience necessary to keep two trains from colliding in a tunnel.
Given that Ayn Rand herself was an atheist who wrote very critically of religion, it’s interesting how much of Atlas Shrugged: Part II feels like one of those evangelical films where the Rapture comes and the entire world falls apart because all of the believers have suddenly vanished. In the case of Atlas Shrugged, the world falls apart because all of the creatives and all of the leaders of industry and all of the innovative thinkers have abandoned it so that they can create a new community with John Galt. (They’ve “stopped the motor of the world.”) In many ways, this is the ultimate in wish fulfillment, a way of declaring, “They’ll miss me when I’m gone!” Indeed, the majority of people who keep a copy of Rand’s novel displayed on their bookcase do so because they believe that they would be one of the lucky ones who was approached by Galt. No one expects that they’ll be the person left behind to try to run the railroad. It’s a bit like how like the most strident Marxist activists always assume they’ll be the ones organizing the workers as opposed to being a worker themselves.
Not surprisingly, the same critics who attacked Part I didn’t care much for Atlas Shrugged Part II. When I first saw it, I thought the film was a bit too long and I was annoyed that, with the exception of a few minutes at the end, the film didn’t really seem to move the story forward. At the same time, just as with the first film, I appreciated the fact that the second film was proudly contrarian in its portrayal of the government as being inherently incompetent. After all, this was 2012, back in the “good government” era, when a lot of people still reflexively assumed that the government was staffed only by hyper-competent policy wonks who knew what they were doing and who were only concerned with making sure that “the trains ran on time,” to borrow an old expression.
Rewatching the film this weekend, I have to say that I actually appreciated Atlas Shrugged Part II a bit more than the first time I watched it. Yes, Part II was still a bit too long and the domestic drama between Hank and his wife fell flat but Part II is still a marked improvement on the first film. Some of that is because Part II had a higher budget than Part I and, as a result, it didn’t look as cheap as the first film. The corporate offices looked like actual corporate offices and the factories looked like real factories. Secondly, the second film had an entirely different cast from the first film. Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe, and especially Patrick Fabian were clear improvements on the actors who previously played their roles. That’s especially important when it comes to Mathis and Beghe because, as opposed to the first film, Part II convinces the viewer that Dagny and Hank actually are as important as they think they are. When the trains collide in the tunnel, the viewer never doubts that Mathis’s Dagny could have prevented the disaster if not for the government’s attempts to force her out of her own company. As well, the viewer never doubts that Beghe’s Hank would fight to the end to protect his business, even if it means prison. One wouldn’t have necessarily believed that while watching the first film.
Finally, having lived through the COVID era, the film’s portrait of government overreach and incompetence feels a lot more plausible when watched today. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Rand’s philosophy or agree with her solutions to see the parallels between Directive 10-289 and the policies that led to children being kept out of schools and numerous small business having to shut their doors. In an era when most people’s faith in governmental institutions has been broken to such an extent that it might never be fixed in our lifetime, Atlas Shrugged Part II resonates. Whereas the film once felt subversive, now it feels downright prophetic.
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