Review of Atlas Shrugged II

My wife and I recently saw Atlas Shrugged, Part II. Overall, I thought it was much better than Part I, which I assessed here. The acting was significantly better, and the movie did a better job of conveying the message of Ayn Rand’s book.

There are still some problems in translating a 1950s novel into a modern setting. As I noted in the review of Part I, it is still implausible that railroads play such a big role in the economy. There are some other problems along these lines as well.

Part II also highlights an important tension that is present in the book, but is much more blatant in the movie. On the one hand, as Bryan Caplan explains, Rand emphasizes that misguided populist public opinion supports and is ultimately responsible for the government’s terrible socialistic policies. On the other, Hank Rearden’s (and later John Galt’s) opposition to those policies seems to enjoy broad support, perhaps even from a majority. The movie portrays pro-free market demonstrations that seem to have just as much backing as their left-wing counterparts. When Rearden is put on trial by the government for violating one of their regulatory decrees, they decide to let him off with a slap on the wrist for fear of angering public opinion.

So where does majority sentiment actually lie? If public opinion opposed the government’s interventionist policies, how did those policies become entrenched in the first place? We’re talking interventions far more radical than anything the US government has ever done in real life. And they were apparently adopted through the democratic process rather than a one-party dictatorship established by force (as in most real-life socialist regimes). if the answer is that the public quickly saw the light once they heard Rearden’s brilliant arguments, why didn’t any political entrepreneur run on a Reardenesque platform earlier? The narrator mentions that there were some opponents of these policies even before Rearden. Why did they fail to win over the public, if Rearden (and later John Galt) could do it so easily? In fairness, this is less of an issue in the book, where there is more of a sense that public opinion is against Rearden and Galt until near the end.

That said, this is still a much better movie than the first one in the series, and it captures at least some of the spirit of the book well. If you liked the book or Rand’s work more generally, you will probably like this movie. I am less certain that the movie is a good introduction to Rand’s ideas for those who don’t know much about them previously. But it’s probably at least reasonably decent on that score. My wife, who knows much more about Rand than I do, was also more impressed with the movie than I was. Like me, she had many more reservations about Part I. She may well be a better judge of these movies than I am.

For my overall assessment of Rand (about whose work I have various reservations), see here and here. I’m not an Objectivist and have never been much influenced by Rand’s distinctive ideas (as opposed to those she shared with many other libertarian thinkers). But I do like some of her novels, and respect her achievement in becoming the greatest-ever popularizer of libertarian ideas – even though she would never have described herself that way.

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