WASHINGTON -- The movie "Atlas Shrugged," adapted from Ayn Rand's 1957 novel by the same name, is a triumph of cinematic irony. A work that lectures us endlessly on the moral superiority of heroic achievement is itself a model of mediocrity. In this, the film perfectly reflects both the novel and the mind behind it.
Rand is something of a cultural phenomenon -- the author of potboilers who became an ethical and political philosopher, a libertarian heroine. But Rand's distinctive mix of expressive egotism, free love and free-market metallurgy does not hold up very well on the screen. The emotional center of the movie is the success of high-speed rail -- oddly similar to a proposal in Barack Obama's last State of the Union address. All of the characters are ideological puppets. Visionary, comely capitalists are assaulted by sniveling government planners, smirking lobbyists, nagging wives, rented scientists and cynical humanitarians. When characters begin disappearing -- on strike against the servility and inferiority of the masses -- one does not question their wisdom in leaving the movie.
None of the characters express a hint of sympathetic human emotion -- which is precisely the point. Rand's novels are vehicles for a system of thought known as Objectivism. Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible. "The Objectivist ethics, in essence," said Rand, "hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself."
If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others. Rand's achievement was to turn a phase into a philosophy, as attractive as an outbreak of acne.