Atlas may shrug, but Catholics likely to scratch their heads

By Adam Shaw

Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) –- The DVD release of “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” -– a screen adaptation of the first third of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel –- invites viewers of faith to reflect on the differences between Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which undergirds both book and movie, and a Judeo-Christian approach to the economic and social issues her work raises.

While objectivism takes a stand on a wide range of philosophical topics, it’s Rand’s views on ethics and politics that are perhaps best known -– and most controversial. They certainly rise to the fore in the film.

As summarized by Rand herself, the objectivist outlook involves seeing reality as an objective absolute, entirely independent of subjective feelings or desires. Accordingly, reality can only properly be encountered through the faculty of reason, and it is on reason alone that all ethical decisions should be based. Rand concluded that each individual human being is an end in him- or herself, meaning that the pursuit of one’s own happiness is the highest moral purpose in life.

“(Man) must exist for his own sake,” Rand argued, “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” This stands in clear contrast to Christ’s teaching that the greatest love consists in laying down one’s life for the sake of others, a truth he affirmed by his own self-emptying in the Incarnation and by his supreme sacrifice on Golgotha. Objectivism, however, would seem to have no place for Christ’s cross, except perhaps as a misguided and futile gesture. It is with this dichotomy in mind that Christians must approach “Atlas Shrugged: Part I.”

From an aesthetic point of view, perhaps the first thing to note about the film is that several previous attempts have been made to transfer Rand’s ideas from page to reel, yet all except the latest have failed for one reason or another. This is all the more surprising given the fact that Rand’s 1943 novel “The Fountainhead” reached the screen six years later in a major release starring Gregory Peck, Raymond Massey and Patricia Neal — and directed by Hollywood stalwart King Vidor.

Yet, considering the lackluster characters and turgid plot on display in director Paul Johannson’s “Atlas” adaptation, it’s not all that difficult to imagine why earlier efforts bit the dust.

The year is 2016, and an embattled business sector struggles against a depressed economy and an ever more intrusive set of government regulations, all advanced in the name of social justice.

With these conditions as backdrop, the plot focuses on Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) -– the vice president of Taggart Transcontinental Railroads –- and her relationship with steel innovator Henry “Hank” Rearden (Grant Bowler). Despite their typically Randian pursuit of individual happiness, the two titans do manage to work together to fight off the unholy alliance of politicians and opponents arrayed against them.

As other successful industrialists disappear in peculiar circumstances, each vaguely referencing an ambiguous figure named John Galt (played by director Johannson), the movie begins to indulge in the wordy philosophical argumentation that will presumably stretch on for the remainder of the trilogy.

Politically right-of-center Catholics will likely appreciate the deconstruction — if not debunking –- of such charged buzzwords as “fairness,” “equalization” and “public interest.” And all well-informed Catholic viewers will be aware that many modern popes, up to and including Blessed John Paul II, have warned against the dangers of misguided socialism.

These would include the dehumanization of the person through collectivization, the trampling down of personal freedom by an overbearing state, and the mistaken desire to replace religiously motivated individual charity with mere government expenditure — a wholly inadequate substitute.

Thus, while delving into themes like the inherent freedom and irreducible value of the individual, the film may meet with at least guarded approval on the part of some Catholics. Yet, as it goes further to reflect the full objectivist creed, Catholic moviegoers will likely begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Belief in the dignity of work — and in the truth that each human being is entitled to the fruits of his or her labor — is, after all, entirely in keeping with scripture. But when characters snort and scoff at those who are trying to show compassion, they obviously depart from Catholic values. So, too, when industrial executives roll their eyes because the representatives of their unionized employees have requested a meeting.

Even from a mainstream libertarian viewpoint, Rand’s approach seems extreme. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) — a champion of unfettered capitalism — once observed: “Government doesn’t have responsibilities, people have responsibilities.” “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” serves to affirm the first part of that statement, but wholly ignores the second.

Ultimately, for the objectivist, an individual’s only responsibility is directed inward, toward the self. Perhaps because of this, the characters in “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” mostly come across as flat and unsympathetic.

Nowhere is this more striking than in the peculiar relationship between the two main characters. United by mutual interest in the success of a new railroad, they quickly develop their own version of a romantic attachment based on their shared love of hard work, profit and free markets, with Rearden declaring, “My only goal is to make money.” How charming!

Theirs is not a pairing-off likely to set audiences hearts aflame and, unsurprisingly, the portrayal of their bond registers as tedious.

The screenplay’s nods to the virtues of individual endeavor may appear to be in accord with Catholic teaching, as presented in papal encyclicals like “Rerum Novarum” (1891) and “Laborem Exercens” (1981). But, by ignoring God, “Atlas” and its underlying philosophy fall into a tired –- and potentially dangerous — brand of Pelagianism. In Rand’s world, superior individuals achieve their own goodness and virtue, instead of turning to God and allowing his grace to work through them. They possess no humility and require no salvation.

Catholic political and social teaching consistently balances freedom with responsibility. “Atlas Shrugged: Part I” effectively critiques socialism for denying man’s freedom apart from the collective. Yet the alternative vision it provides –- a scenario wherein the rich man turns his nose up at Lazarus for being lazy, all the while complaining at the noise the beggar is making –- is just as bleak. In the face of poverty and vulnerability, Christians are called to demonstrate active concern; when confronted with those in need, by contrast, Rand’s “Atlas” merely shrugs.

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Shaw reviews films and video games for Catholic News Service.