On Films about Entrepreneur-Heroes

I was paging through Netflix (to find an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine that my four year old hadn’t already watched) the other day when I came across the recent film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged. I had been hoping someone would make a big-budget version of Atlas Shrugged for most of my adult life, and when I saw trailers for it last year I got extremely excited. At first it took me by surprise that it had gone through theatrical distribution and ended up on Netflix so quickly, but after a moment’s thought it made perfect sense.

The first thing I should say is that I’ve loved Atlas Shrugged since I read it in college. My college girlfriend was a brilliant aesthete and turned me on to it and to Ayn Rand generally. Since then Howard Roarke and Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon have been role models. Atlas Shrugged has been a huge influence in my life, arguably affecting my politics, choice of career, and life goals.

First of all, it had trains in it – always one of my favorite things, and something that will always be inextricably tied to my relationship with my father. The resentment it had towards government and the closed-door behavior of those in power was fundamental to my “outsider” origins (again, tied directly to my father). But most importantly, it portrayed the solitary entrepreneur as a character worth emulating.

Even if you understand and reject the harsher interpretation of objectivism, if you’re an American you love the idea of the brilliant entrepreneur who fights the power and changes the world with nothing but an idea and the sweat of his own labor. Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. In the nineties it was Marc Andreesen and Shawn Fanning for me. I think of Kevin Mitnick in the same way. It’s not about the money – it’s about how they MADE something hugely important and valuable to many many others.

I feel very different about these kinds of people than I do about those who influence people’s emotions. Artists, musicians, writers, film directors – they change the way people think and feel. That’s hugely important and worthwhile. But it’s not the same. (Don’t get me started on politicians or sports figures. Or Bono.)

(There’s a great scene where Dagny Taggart impulsively trades her diamonds for Mrs Reardon’s metal bracelet. Dagny believes that the physical manifestation of willpower that Reardon Metal represents is worth more than diamonds bought from a jeweler. Diamonds are valuable by consensus; Reardon Metal represents utility, which has real value. I love that. In the world of symbols, what an object represents is more important than the object itself.)

I’m not surprised that the theatrical release went nowhere, even though the production values were excellent, as was the cast. The story is culturally and historically significant, of course, and hugely influential. But the idea of an entrepreneur-hero is so politically incorrect, I’m sure no self-respecting studio/promoter wanted to court the public opinion backlash that would come with a media campaign, not even in red states. I hope there’s enough money to make Part Two. Thank goodness for the Long Tail.

What puzzles me, though, is that culturally Americans love entrepreneur-heroes. They’re in our DNA. The elevation of Steve Jobs to sainthood (seriously, I think the Vatican has been contacted) last year continues to make that clear. But we somehow want them to be flawed, so we can shake our heads at their tragic rise and fall. After all, finding a need and filling it by making or building something useful can’t possibly be a good thing if you end up rich at the end, right?

Where are the *positive* films about entrpreneurs? Tucker, sure. Anything else? Seriously? What is it in our culture that makes us love our entrepreneurs as they struggle but hate them if they succeed?

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.