The United States today is a house divided and the ghost of Ayn Rand has driven a bulldozer through the middle of it as a finishing touch. If that seems a bit unfair to say of a writer-philosopher who has been dead since 1982, it isn’t. Rand was fond of saying that “philosophy moves the world” and in her case it’s certainly true. Her two most famous novels—“The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”—have been deliriously influential with everyone from impressionable teenagers to top-ranking Republican lawmakers and right-wing commentators. Rand’s theory of “Objectivism” held that “man’s right to live for his own sake” was so absolute that selfishness was a virtue (her phrase) and altruism became a dirty word.
It was twenty years ago that this 145-minute filibuster of a film was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar. This was an “authorized” (i.e. uncritical) profile and while writer-director Michael Paxton does a creditable job scoping out Rand’s personal story, anyone not already converted to her world view may sense that “A Sense of Life” has only a black hole where its soul should be. After two and a half hours spent in witness to the glorification of self-centeredness, it’s easy to feel that way.
Rand’s belief system was inexorably tied to her biography (probably too much so) and the film delineates this quite well for its own purposes. She was born as Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905 St. Petersburg as Russia was about to go through a series of convulsive political conflicts. Some of these she and her upper middle-class family watched from the windows of their apartment that looked down on the city’s main square. The Rosenbaum clan did not fare well when Lenin’s Bolsheviks eventually seized power; they had to temporarily flee St. Petersburg and Ayn’s beloved father lost his pharmacy to the state. If the headstrong teenager didn’t care for the “hopeless, mystical and obedient” life under the czar, she disliked the iron-handed statism of the Communists even less and dreamt of escaping to America, specifically to California as she had fallen under the spell of glamorous early Hollywood.
You say you want a revolution? St. Petersburg 1917
Right from these opening segments—with its period film clips, family photos and early intellectual musings—there is no doubt of the film’s professionalism. Rand’s story arc has a parallel historical context that serves it well. But after Rand manages her escape to America in 1926 (her first glimpse of glittering Lower Manhattan high-rises in a lifting fog cemented her lifelong skyscraper fetish) the biography goes full speed ahead while the film’s raison d’etre stays stuck in neutral. So for a documentary junkie like me, it was engaging to get some background on Rand’s early days as a Hollywood extra and aspiring screenwriter, like how a chance meeting with famed director Cecil B. DeMille got her a needed career boost.
Rand’s screenplay dreams were never quite fulfilled and she eventually soured of Tinseltown, though not before meeting her future husband (Frank O’Connor, a DeMille B-actor) and securing U.S. citizenship. Having come of age in the early days of Soviet rule, nobody can begrudge her love of America’s “optimistic, can-do” spirit. The other qualities of her adopted country, its “benevolence and common sense”, were soon dropped from her repertoire, starting with her first novel “We the Living”, published in 1936 (“Who can tell me why I should live for anything but for that which I want?”). An ideological love triangle that takes place in post-revolutionary Russia, it takes dead aim at Soviet extremism, but treats it like an absolute evil that sprung up with no context. This tack was continued two years later in her next book “Anthem.” Sure, the draconian application by the Bolsheviks of the communal Marxist idea was an historical cruelty. But did that make it necessary to believe that “the word ‘we’ must never be placed first in my soul (or) it becomes a monster.” And just in case you still thought that pronoun wasn’t so bad, Rand begins the next paragraph by declaring, “’We’ is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it.”
I mean, WTF??? Continue down this road of thinking and pretty soon there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Josef Stalin. Of course, the interviewees in “A Sense of Life” don’t see it that way. The subject’s brilliance is a given according to talking heads like Leonard Peikoff and Harry Binswanger, who are not only Randian scholars but former associates of her as well. Seldom is heard a discouraging word and the value of Objectivism is blindly held up as a paragon of the human race while its alleged polar opposite, Collectivism, is so bad that the use of the word is proof enough. All this despite the fact that a close reading of Rand would lead a truly “objective” person to conclude that she believes the evils of the “C” word range from a Communist re-education camp to the donation of gently-used Clothing to a homeless shelter.
Instead, the documentary focuses on her bio and the success of her 1943 novel “The Fountainhead.” There are several clips from the film version made six years later and starring Gary Cooper as Howard Roark, the vainglorious modern architect who blows up a nearly-completed housing project because “second-handers” altered his design with conventional modifications. This gives the producers a way to let enabling experts hash out Roark’s rapey seduction scene (Cooper’s co-star was Patricia Neal) and glorify his brain-freeze courtroom speech which has got to be history’s most tortured defense of property destruction. (“I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life” etc.)
It then moves on to Rand’s magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged,” that giant millstone of 20th century literature that the filmmakers point out was named the second most influential book after the Bible by a 1991 Library of Congress survey. In this tome, all the poor-little rich kid industrialists and innovators of the world, convinced that the human race doesn’t deserve their genius, go on strike. There is a wee step off the pedestal here as the film shows the viciously negative reviews the book got in the days before the “mainstream media” became a dirty word to many on the right. But not all critics came from the left side of the divide. William F. Buckley, in later years, discussed his magazine’s infamous panning of the book with TV host Charlie Rose. The conservative icon said that while he found “The Fountainhead” engaging he thought that “Atlas” was “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism” and added, “I had to flog myself to read it.” By the time the novel ends, with subversive alpha-male inventor John Galt’s skull-imploding 75-page global radio broadcast, you can almost hear the jackboots in the background. But still, millions of people have swallowed this whole. And Rand’s numerous TV appearances in later life didn’t stem the tide of her widespread acceptance. The film shows segments of her sparing with the likes of Phil Donahue, Mike Wallace and Tom Snyder. Sample exchange on the idea of helping others: Donahue: “What’s wrong with that?” Rand: “What’s wrong with suicide?”
Answer: John Oliver’s original “douchebag.”
That is why Buckley’s comment is so telling. He wasn’t afraid at least to see that this magical-thinking mindset was a dead-end street. Rand’s rigorous ideas, though they may have often been short-sighted, did not include any great love for Republicans like Ronald Reagan. But what she begat is even worse: a controlling cabal of GOP leaders (and fanboys) like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz whose lily-livered opportunism led to obscene tax cuts for “persecuted” billionaires and profound disregard for anyone lesser than that. They stood down in the face of the new President (and ultimate Randian monster) Donald Trump, the tawdry narcissist and duplicitous hate-monger of bottomless greed who scammed millions of Americans into voting against their interests. How do I know this? Because Ayn Rand told me so. She warned about the rise of demagogues in a society where many folks have weakened themselves to the point of mental infirmity, saying they “would be anxious to follow anyone because they don’t trust themselves.” You said it, girl.
Soon-to be-ex House Speaker Paul Ryan: the type of man produced after decades of devolved Rand worship
There’s nothing wrong with prosperity, personal confidence, enlightened self-interest or admiring the work of bold architects. But if any human quality gets taken to its extreme end point it is corrupted. And if those faults are intrinsic to any person of great power or influence, chaos and misery follow for everyone, infecting even the perpetrator (Trump gives off the appearance of a hellishly unhappy man). Even the Rand-inspired website The Atlas Society notes that Ayn was “an intelligent, creative woman embittered by circumstances, stand-offish by nature and raised unconnected to any wider community or tradition.” I wished this rubber-stamp documentary had had the guts to likewise challenge itself instead of perpetuating the myth of her assumed greatness. Despite what she may have had us believe Other People Matter and if we start thinking they don’t it is a long downhill slide for the world and one that I fear has already begun, judging from the increase in authoritarian states and weakened democracies. It’s way too late to change Rand’s mind but We The Living should reject her overall philosophy while there is still time.
Rick Ouellette is the author of Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film and Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey.