How do you make a movie with a cause, without being preachy? There are ways.
First, you heat up the love-story angle. In the first third of the film, where John Galt is showing off his little free-market haven hidden in the mountains and trying to persuade Dagny to stay there, it's obvious that he's madly in love with her and wants her to stay with him for more reasons than just philosophical ideals. It's also clear that the feeling is reciprocated. The sexual tension between them sizzles, all through the film, augmented by the really brilliant camera-work.
It doesn't hurt that Galt is played by Kris Polaha, who comes across as a hunky, cheerful, Working Class Hero: a brilliant electrical engineer with solid ideals, but also playful enough to toss gold coins around to impress his girl, or sneak up on her in a crowd just so he can grin at the look on her face when she recognizes him. It's a tribute to his acting – as well as the screenwriting and direction – that he projects an irrepressible sense of humor that Ayn Rand herself never possessed. He's the kind of guy who can laugh at his captors when they offer to make him head of the government-controlled economy, or tell his torturers, when their torture-machine breaks down, that all they need to do is replace a fuse – and then laugh, either because they're too incompetent to repair their own invention or because he knows that their running it has overloaded the system and started a city-wide blackout.
Indeed, there are sly little flashes of humor all through the film, nice contrasts to the grim subject and theme. Ron Paul has a ten-second cameo, in which he stands alone and points out that compelled compliance is always less competent than willing compliance – but Sean Hannity's and Glenn Beck's ten-second cameos are together, and they argue with each other. That's a neat little comparison of Libertarianism with Conservatism – in twenty seconds flat.
Second, the film has a tight, fast-paced, dense and multi-layered script that does a fine job of showing, more than telling, its arguments – often with parallel scenes that evolve into their own symbolism. For example, Dagny's reason for refusing to stay in Galt's Gulch is that she loves and means to save her railroad – built by her grandfather, who also built the great Taggart railroad bridge over the Mississippi. On her return to New York, as she discovers just how much the corrupt government is ruining her railroad – along with the rest of the economy – her growing disillusionment is paired with shots reporting the steady deterioration of the Taggart Bridge. As in the first two films, this speed and density is necessary in order to pack all the plot threads and information into less than two hours' running-time.
As for the infamous John Galt's Speech – originally a 50-page white elephant that kept the film from being made while Rand was alive – it's been brilliantly boiled down to a clear and concise five-minute denunciation of the decayed-Socialist philosophy of dependence and sacrifice. It's not played on an empty screen, either; Galt boldly shows his face to the national audience, a tactic which pays off later when sympathizers recognize him. In parallel shots, we see the reactions of citizens on the street and the dismayed politicians whose broadcast Galt hijacked – a three-layered approach that packs in a density of information and plot-development.
This is especially needed to make AS3 an effective stand-alone film while relating it to the first two. The only weakness in the script is a minor comment, that Reardon Steel was forced into compliance with government policies by attacks from "government unions"; anyone who's studied the history of labor unions, or observed the altercations in Wisconsin last year, knows that governments are not and never have been any friend to the unions, or vice-versa.
Third, the camera-work is totally brilliant – in composition, range, speed, color and texture. The sex-scene where Galt and Dagny finally get it on – on the desk in a tunnel office of the railroad terminal – is actually brief and shows nothing to keep the film from a PG-13 rating, but is hotter than many an outright X-rater I've seen. Not least of the technical brilliance is the seamless matting with stock footage, as likewise was done in the first two films. Nearly all the establishing shots are stock footage, which is understandable given the tight budget of all three films, yet they're blended perfectly with the action shots. The final shot, of a blackout spreading across all of New York City except for the Statue of Liberty – which in fact has its own generator – was done with minimal special effects, possibly no more than simple matting, but it's wonderfully effective. Despite Hollywood's enmity to Rand and Libertarianism in general, the film deserves at least an Oscar nomination for cinematography – and editing.
Altogether, AS3 is a fitting companion and completion to the previous two films, despite its unavoidable changes of cast. Its technical solutions to its restricted budget, as with the first two films, in themselves support Rand's theme of the value of the unrestricted mind. In fact, I have to claim that the Atlas Shrugged movies are better than the book they sprang from. Simply as film, they invite repeated viewing to appreciate their technical brilliance. Whatever your politics, you really should see this film – and its predecessors.