"If it sinks without trace, its backers should at least be proud that they lost their own money."
So quipped film critic Peter Foster in the National Post, writing of the recent film adaption of Atlas Shrugged Part I, long awaited by no one but, well, objectivists and libertarians. The film didn’t perform well with critics or audiences, and made no money for its backers, which is not surprising given its back-dated plot, starched characters and obsession with political ideology. If that many people kept asking me who John Galt was, I might move to some remote, wooded paradise as well.
The film was a dud for good reasons. However, there are a number of other American cinematic masterpieces that do illustrate libertarian themes in a much more accessible and human way than the awkward Rand adaptation that most moviegoers wisely stayed away from. Here are five classic films that for me illustrate clearly, poetically, and tragically the overriding theme of libertarianism — that man and the state are permanently at odds, and man must either declare his sovereignty from it or be consumed by its trappings.
1. Papillon (1973)
Papillon, the Steve McQueen classic based on the book by former French Guianan prison inmate Henri Charriere, is probably the best prison escape movie of all time. The realness, the depths of brutality and the Thoreauvian themes of man and his intrinsic need for freedom make this the most essential film about man vs. prison state.
Papillon, an admitted safe-cracker, is falsely convicted of killing a pimp in 1931 and sentenced to a permanent exile in a penal colony in the jungles of French Guiana. From the time he arrives, despite great danger, he dreams of nothing but escape. The administrators and guards, robbed of their humanity by their position of almost entirely unchecked authority, become even baser than the inmates themselves. Papillion is one of the only inmates whose spirit is not broken, despite the unspeakable physical and psychological cruelty forced upon him by the state.
There’s a lesson here: when the state has your body in its clutches, it is free to become utterly totalitarian; it will do anything to preserve its absolute authority, and must break the will of anyone who defies it. Papillon, the ultimate libertarian, believes in freedom for its own sake and refuses, even in the face of creeping insanity, to submit to the will of evil men.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Universally acclaimed as one of the greatest American films, this Francis Ford Coppola classic set in the Vietnam War, in the words of Roger Ebert “is not about war, but about truths war reveals we would be much happier never to discover.” Those truths are personified in the character of Colonel Kurtz, an ex-special forces commander who goes AWOL and lives among the natives when he discovers those truths, and is declared an enemy of the state.
Libertarians have been railing about the evils of American imperial warfare for years, holding up Vietnam as the exemplary anti-interventionist cautionary tale. Listen to Colonel Kurtz’s “inoculation” story, and you’ll see why.
Interestingly, the morality of the film so mirrors the moral ambiguity of war that different audiences have claimed it is alternately pro-American and anti-American. Coppola himself opined: “...the fact that a culture can lie about what's really going on in warfare, that people are being brutalized, tortured, maimed, and killed, and somehow present this as moral is what horrifies me, and perpetuates the possibility of war”. Almost sounds like a Ron Paul speech.
3. Serpico (1973)
This Al Pacino film based on the real-life, whistle-blowing, New York City cop Frank Serpico who fights alone against massive institutionalized theft in the New York City Police Department of the early 1970’s — and is rewarded with cynicism, callous indifference and worse.
Serpico, focusing on people and not political ideologies, illustrates better than Atlas Shrugged how the state really operates: a veneer of respectability, cloaked in symbolism and protected by indifference, incubates hubris and self-entitlement in its members. Any threat that comes along to stop the gears of corruption from turning poses a threat to the system — the state tries to preserve itself by forcing conformity through frustrating red tape, bribery with titles and badges, and when those fail, violence.
Frank Serpico, an unflinchingly moral individualist through it all despite no specific benefit to himself, went on to become a devoted Ron Paul fan, according to his personal blog, and today rails against the erosion of civil liberties and the creeping police state.
4. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is the cheeky subtitle to this Kubrick masterpiece. Originally conceived as a serious film about Cold War political wrangling, Kubrick found he couldn’t write a script about potential nuclear annihilation without it coming out farcical. The result is a lampooning of the government’s high-level decision-making process, with its ridiculously human internal foibles, animosities, deceit and psychosis. Replace Major Kong’s atom bomb with a drone, and Soviet Ambassador Sadeski with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and you have a perfectly relevant, updated film about the lunacy of trusting government bureaucracies with our lives.
5. The Social Network (2010)
This is considerably less dark than my other recommendations. Atlas Shrugged is a story about the virtues of entrepreneurship in the face of state machinations, but holds up the tycoons of massive industrial companies as its heroes. Who relates to that? This movie, a real-life tale about a Harvard brat who creates a multi-billion-dollar company from his college dorm and becomes richer than Paul Allen and Charles Schwab, is a more updated take on entrepreneurship with a fresher face than Rand’s combative railroad tycoons and heroic steel magnates. We all know his name, and we all use his service. This story really illustrates that capitalism works, and nearly any American can be that one kid with an idea even better than Myspace. It helps to have that idea in an industry that is nearly ignored by government regulators.