John Aglialoro is on a quest. Aglialoro, 67, is the CEO of a fitness-equipment company, a former U.S. poker champion and an objectivist a subscriber to Ayn Rand's doctrine of rational selfishness. In 1992 he bought from Rand's estate the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged, her 1957 novel about the heroes who prop up society and the parasites who leech off their efforts. His dream was to make a film that honored Rand's philosophy.
For 20 years the dream eluded him. Studios shied away from the project. Scripts were written and discarded. A deal to have Angelina Jolie play heroine Dagny Taggart fell through. Even Rand's acolytes feared that a thousand-page doorstop whose emotional climax is a lengthy monologue on the virtues of unfettered capitalism would flop as a film.
With his rights to the project about to lapse, Aglialoro willed the movie to life, forking out some $20 million to finance and produce it independently. On April 15 when else? Atlas Shrugged: Part I opens in 277 theaters across the U.S. The trailer has notched more than 1.2 million views on YouTube, and advance screenings galvanized grass-roots support and considerable buzz among the objectivists, free-marketeers, Tea Party groups, libertarian think tanks and antitax advocates at the core of Rand's thriving cult.
Rand has always been a lodestar for proponents of limited government. The New York Times dubbed her the "novelist laureate" of the Reagan Administration; a 1991 Library of Congress survey ranked Atlas Shrugged history's second most influential book, behind the Bible. More recently, Rand has emerged as the exalted prophet of a Tea Party movement that sees the U.S. slouching toward the kind of dystopia sketched in her novel. Its annual domestic sales, which had hovered around 100,000 since Rand's death in 1982, spiked to five times that in 2009. Signs asking who is john galt? (a refrain of Atlas Shrugged) dot Tea Party rallies. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the architect of a budget blueprint that would lower taxes on the rich and reduce social-welfare spending, cited Rand as the reason he got into politics. A website called the Atlasphere offers online dating for objectivists seeking same. "Government is in their face in 101 different ways," Aglialoro says. "There is a feeling that there may be an existential threat, that the American sense of life ... may be at risk."
Set in 2016, the movie (one of a planned trilogy) is a perfect match for this fearful moment. There's been another oil spill. Unemployment is soaring. Politicians pass bills designed to throttle private enterprise; one imposes a tax on Colorado for being too successful. Gas lines snake around the block, and high prices have made trains the predominant form of transportation. Taggart the strong, sexy force behind her family's railroad teams with steel baron Hank Rearden to resurrect the company's foundering fortunes. The film is a faithful adaptation, full of good-looking rich people, corporate showdowns, glittering cocktail parties and glossy shots of trains steaming through scenic valleys. It's capitalism porn. Rand would have loved it.
The movie's flaws are largely her own. Her characters are cardboard, and the dialogue sags under the weight of many Really Important Speeches. ("My metal, your railway it's us who move the world," Rearden purrs to Taggart.) Rand's gospel of greed she famously wore a dollar-sign brooch reveals itself in dark warnings against "flattening the wage scale" and "stupid altruistic urges."
Philosophy, as Rand knew, is part personal confession: we venerate the qualities we perceive in ourselves. Aglialoro swats away suggestions that his quest mirrors those in Atlas Shrugged, though he allows that he has "the tenacity of a Dagny Taggart." His reason for pursuing the project would surely please the author. "I thought it would be fun making a movie and making some money," he says. "That's the spirit of what she would have liked to hear."
Aglialoro hopes to release the rest of his trilogy in 2012 and '13