Volume 17, Number 04, Fall 1999

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Directed By
Christopher Menaul
Producers’ Entertainment Group, 1999
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
August 1999

Ayn Rand was one of the major sources of libertarian ideas in the second half of the 20th century. Arguably, she was also the sparkplug that ignited the libertarian movement through her identification of herself, not as a conservative, but as a radical for capitalism. Since her death, books whose authors take her seriously have appeared in growing numbers, including literary studies, philosophical treatises, and biographies. The Passion of Ayn Rand was made from the first full length biography, by Rand's former follower Barbara Branden, and does an excellent job of translating it into cinematic form, with outstanding performances by Helen Mirren as Ayn Rand and Peter Fonda as her husband, Frank O'Connor.

Rand's ideas are not the primary focus of this film; where the "passion" in the book was Rand's devotion to individualism, the passion in the film is Rand's affair with Nathaniel Branden. But her ideas are freely referred to; for example, there is a scene where a man in the audience at one of her talks asks her to define her philosophy while standing on one foot and gets the famous answer "Metaphysics—objective reality; epistemology—reason; ethics- rational self-interest; politics—capitalism." (This scene makes it clear that we are seeing a dramatization; the question was actually asked by a salesman at a Random House sales conference.) The film neither mocks Rand's ideas nor vilifies her for holding them nor even apologizes for them; it simply treats them as an integral part of her character. In fact, we are clearly shown that despair over being misunderstood, as when she was accused of advocating dictatorship, helped motivate many of Rand’s personal choices, which are the focus of the film.

By now anyone who is interested in Rand's personal life knows the story of her affair with Branden; there is no need to repeat it. But excellent performances by the entire cast bring it to life, with the kind of sharp, dramatic dialogue that Rand herself admired. The cinematography is equally good, with the sharp focus of Hollywood films from Rand's own time there. Rand appears as the prime mover of her own tragedy—but the relative passivity of the other three principal figures was also a precondition for it. For many years, Rand was scarcely seen as human by anyone. Her followers idealized her, too often encouraged by her complacency; her opponents vilified her, imagining her as a worse monster than Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot fused into one. It's a pleasure to see a film that treats her simply as an interesting, even fascinating human being, and in which Helen Mirren's fine and convincing performance helps us see just how that fascination worked for so many people.

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