The Passion of Ayn Rand
by Ari Armstrong
I expected to hate the Showtime cinematic adaptation of The Passion of Ayn Rand, drawn loosely from Barbara Branden's book. I had heard from numerous Objectivists that it is little more than soft-porn that hopelessly skews Rand's ideas.
But, while the film is not the master-work depiction of Rand's life it could have been, it is actually rather good. The acting of all the major characters is competently handled, and at times inspired. Helen Mirren portrays both Rand's hot temper and her quick wit with an audience. (And the sex scenes, which are rather integral to the main story, can be counted on one hand.)
One scene is particularly poignant. Rand, after taking criticism for Atlas Shrugged, complains in tears to her husband Frank that she feels invisible. This, with Frank sitting in the background, preparing to leave the house so that Rand and Nathaniel Branden can continue their affair. (In reference to Frank, one might note Eyal Mozes's criticism that Frank's alleged alcoholism is not well-substantiated.)
Are the ideas mangled? Certainly they are not presented in fair balance. While some of Rand's broader philosophy is presented in the film in summary form (for instance with her "stand on one foot" presentation of the philosophy), what comes across in the movie in detail are only Rand's rationalistic tendencies. Rand tended to rationalize romantic interests as determined solely by one's philosophy, she over-played hero-worship until some felt compelled to contort their personalities to fit the "ideal man" image, and she tended toward psychologism with some of her friends.
All these rationalistic tendencies were present to some degree in the early Objectivist community. Unfortunately, the film utterly ignores the deeper roots of the philosophy which by now have served to correct early rationalisms. For instance, Nathaniel admits to having acted wrongly, but his regrettable actions were the result of failing to take into account all the relevant "facts of reality," as he has written. I think Nathaniel would argue he's a better Objectivist now than he was back then, and most modern Objectivists would agree (disregarding those in Peikoff's camp who regard Nathaniel as forever evil nevermind the facts).
The worst part about the movie is its tone. Barbara clearly intends "passion" to refer to Rand's indomitable spirit, to her joy of living. And some of this does come through in the movie. But the film takes "passion" to relate only to sex. The opening scene is an aerial look at New York City to melancholy music, which sets the stage for the tragedy, not the triumph, of Rand's life. So I do think there's a problem of focus. (To be fair, the film closes with Rand giving a sparkling talk, which is partially redeeming.)
Whatever the flaws of the film, it has its quality moments. I decided to watch it solely for its historical interest, but I enjoyed it, especially since I was able to approach it with a deeper knowledge of Ayn Rand.