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Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life

Strand Releasing // Unrated // July 28, 2015
List Price: $32.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matt Hinrichs | posted July 29, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Pragmatic believer in self-reliance, messiah-like founder of Objectivism, idol to Wall Street traders and slash-and-burn Republicans - Ayn Rand has become many things to many people. The Oscar-nominated documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life de-mystifies the author and philosopher, delineating her life story in the same admiring manner as a typical PBS documentary. Strand Releasing's Blu-ray upgrades the image quality while retaining the bonus materials from 2006's Director's Vision DVD set.

The way A Sense of Life portrays it, Ayn Rand's guiding principal of placing an indomitable sense of individualism above all else wasn't just a belief - she inhabited it, through and through. Eventually coined by Rand as Objectivism, it grew from a personal belief into a full-fledged dogma that wasn't without its share of controversy. Director Michael Paxton frames the documentary as an admiring yet balanced look at how Rand arrived at these principals and how they shifted within her lifetime. The movie uses lots of clips from television talk shows - with Rand on the defense opposite Mike Wallace, Phil Donahue and Tom Snyder - to show that she was resolute in her beliefs to the very end.

Narrated by Sharon Gless, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life takes its time (nearly two and a half hours) to thoroughly examine every stage in Rand's life. Seen now, Paxton's documentary style comes across as somewhat ponderous and imitative of Ken Burns' pan-across-the-photograph methods. Despite that, there's no denying that Ayn Rand's eventful life makes for some awfully compelling viewing - and it's all recounted here. We follow her childhood as Alisa Rosenbaum in Lenin-era Russia, an intellectually curious girl devouring European adventure stories and silent movies. With its idolatry of assertive, he-man heroes, cinema took a prominent role in shaping the girl's world views.

The young writer, re-christening herself as Ayn Rand, rejected the Communist ideal of individuals giving themselves over to the state and embraced reason over religious piety - all the while dreaming of a way to arrive in the U.S. to find other like-minded intellectuals. In 1925, she was able to acquire a travel visa to visit distant relatives in Chicago. Eventually Rand made her way to Hollywood, where the gutsy, striking-appearing girl gets the attention of Cecil B. DeMille and works as an extra on his Christian epic King of Kings (apparently the idea of working on such a pro-religion movie didn't faze this atheist much). By the time she meets and marries the love of her life, actor Frank O'Connor, Rand has established herself as a writer of florid fiction with assertive, larger-than-life protagonists.

Unsurprisingly, A Sense of Life also delves deeply into Rand's key writings - We the Living (1936), the novella Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). It's pretty interesting to hear about the influences Rand drew upon for these works, such as how characteristics of Rand's husband found their way into The Fountainhead's protagonist, the defiantly modern architect Howard Roark. Throughout her life, Rand actively campaigned to get her writings translated to stage and screen (despite her frustrations over ceding control to others). Her hands-on involvement in the movie version of The Fountainhead - made by Warner Bros. in 1949 and starring Rand's idol, Gary Cooper - make up the documentary's most absorbing segments. While not a great film by any means, The Fountainhead came as one instance when an author and studio's overripe, melodramatic sensibilities were a serendipitous match.

Rand makes a revealing comment at one point in A Sense of Life, guardedly stating that Conservative politics pose more of a threat to the future of America's democracy than any Liberal agenda possibly could. Given that Rand's philosophies have been wholeheartedly embraced by the neo-Conservative arm of the Republican party, this was a surprise. If anything, Rand's stature as a serious philosopher has plunged in the 16 years since this documentary came out. This aspect of Rand's sphere of influence beyond her death leaves a big hole in this otherwise admiring, comprehensive portrait.

The Blu-ray:

Strand Releasing's two-disc edition of Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life presents the film in 1080p High Definition on a Blu-ray, while including all of the supplements from the 2005 Director's Vision Edition on a separate DVD. It comes packaged in a Blu-sized keep-case with each disc affixed to the inner walls.


For what it's worth, the Blu-ray edition of Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life presents the film as it was originally shown in theaters in the '90s. The film doesn't appear to have been cleaned up from its two prior DVD releases, only given a little more detail with a 1080p resolution image. The filmed interviews and animated segments are a little murky and not quite in the sharpest focus, but they are satisfactory enough with a relatively few dust spots and blemishes. The documentary's archival materials are enlarged and cropped to fit a 16:9 aspect ratio, which unfortunately show their age.


The 2.0 DTS-HD MA Stereo soundtrack is a serviceable mix, with the narration sounding pristine over an unobtrusive music score. Instances of hiss and pops don't come up too often. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided with the film.


A bonus DVD included in the package contains several hours' worth of bonus footage, as well as photo galleries, bios, trailers and more (all of which got carried over from Strand's 2006 Director's Vision edition). The most intriguing of these is a complete, filmed dramatization of Rand's never-before-mounted 1934 play Ideal. Excerpted in the documentary, this 55-minute black and white drama features Janne Peters as Kay Gonda, a headstrong actress accused of murder. Other features include 36 minutes' worth of Interviews with Rand intimates from the film, and an episode of Los Angeles television series Filmmakers interviewing director Michael Paxton. Text- and image-only features include Festivals and Awards Cast & Crew Bios, Photo Galleries, Additional Info and DVD Credits. The Blu-ray portion of this set includes a Remastered Trailer and previews for other Strand Releasing products.

Final Thoughts

Recommended for acolytes or casual fans of the philosopher-author, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life presents an all-encompassing (at 143 minutes, perhaps too much so) portrait of one of the 20th century's most intriguing, contradictory women. Aside from a middling high-resolution picture upgrade, Strand Releasing's Blu-ray edition of this Oscar-nominated documentary doesn't offer anything substantial over their 2006 Director's Vision deluxe DVD. Rent It.

Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.

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