Work hard and thrive: this is the powerful message of the American dream. Millions of people are attracted to its democratic potential. Anyone, regardless of who they are or where they have come from, can be a success. And in America success means wealth — preferably riches beyond the wildest imagination. This is American dream.
In the face of incredible odds people can achieve amazing things. They can gain social status and become wealthy. Forrest Gump, in the film Forest Gump (1994) was never a sharp witted intellectual but he managed make something of his life. Jerry Maguire in the film Jerry Maguire (1997) loses everything and wins it back. In It’s a wonderful life (1946) George Bailey believes that he has lost everything but gets a second chance when he remembers the value of community. These are the stories where the American dream offers a happy ending.
But there is a flip side. This is a world where success has been unfairly gained, the system has fallen apart and injustice is rife — this is the dark side of the failed American dream. In The Grapes of Wrath (1940) the boom and bust economy of the Great Depression has wrecked the economy. Drought has turned viable farming land into a dust bowl. The whole American system is in a state of collapse. And in Idiocracy (2006) society has become lazy, infantile and ineffective. Incompetence and failure are the norm.
What if the American dream was always a lie? What if those who achieved immeasurable wealth had done so not by the application of honest hard work, but through corruption and underhand means? This is the case in Chinatown (1974) where secret land and water deals take place. A corrupt police department operates with impunity in Serpico (1973) and police brutality and lies abound in LA Confidential (1997). There is political scandal in All the Presidents Men (1976) and The Parallax View (1974), and a legal firm working for the mafia in The Firm (1993). In all these stories the American dream has taken a wrong turn.
In a corrupt system those at the bottom will do anything to get to the top — to get rich quick or die trying. When society is fixated on the rapid accumulation of wealth and nothing else matters, criminal characters will go to any length to make their own dreams come true: the drug dealer in Scarface (1983) lives an ultra-violent version of the American dream where nothing counts except showing off his money and using violence to defend his business interests. When you’re in business selling a product, it’s all the same whether it’s a can of cherries or a bag of cocaine. In The Godfather (1972) the normalcy of people lives, the births and marriages hide a dark truth about people’s roles within a ruthless mafia organisation.
Whatever a person’s class the American dream comes with a catch. In The Deer Hunter (1978) working-class steel workers are sent to fight a brutal and pointless war in Vietnam. The middle-class hero of American Beauty (1999) has been screwed by the system and in The Great Gatsby (1974, 2013) fabulous wealth does not automatically bring happiness.
And yet people still pursue the dream. Hoping to reap the glory in a world where only winning counts. In There Will be Blood (2007) oil men go to any length to make a fortune from finding and pumping the black gold out of the ground. American Psycho (2000) features a central character who is a corporate executive, an urban sophisticate and a ruthless killer. The only goal Gordon Gekko has in Wall Street (1987) is making money. He thinks nothing of buying a company, making its hard-working staff redundant and asset stripping it for profit. Gordon Gekko sums up American business strategy over the last 50 years: short term profiteering at the cost of livelihoods and communities — with the net result of shifting America’s production overseas. While the elite gains in the short term, in the longer term the entire nation is depleted with a wholesale loss of skills and technology. It’s not just money and ego that fuels the American dream. The financial players treat the stock market like a big gambling game. When Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wallstreet (2013) realises that he cannot succeed as an employee within the system, he outsmarts the elite at their own game.
Sometimes living in America is bewildering — coping with the murderers and perverts in Blue Velvet (1986) and intrigue and deception in The Big Lebowski (1998). Perhaps the dream is an illusion? In Stepford Wives (1972) housewives are replaced by obedient robots and the trusted neighbours in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) are not who you think they are. It’s all a lie.
Forget the system and the white picket fences. Forget mainstream society — it’s all a con-trick by ‘the man’. It’s time look for an alternative, preferably one with recreational drugs. This could take the form of a motorbike ride to self-enlightenment: Easy Rider (1969). Or a mind-expanding acid trip in a hotel room: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
The dream has failed: not even drugs can help. This is the case for William Foster in Falling Down (1993) with his life unravelling like a Shakespearean tragedy. And in Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) Walter White has nothing left but family (much like the Corleone’s). Walter White merely wishes to provide for his disabled son, because society certainly won’t.
The dream is beginning to look dark. It’s gone off the rails. In Requiem for a Dream (2000) however many drugs the characters consume, it’s never enough. Soon they will wake up with nothing and be forced to do terrible things to eat. Perhaps the dream is a surreal nightmare? This is how Eraserhead (1977) presents it. Something has gone terribly wrong in Paris Texas (1984) and now the protagonist stumbles, lost, across the desert.
What does all this mean?
In a nowhere town the nowhere people in The Last Picture Show (1971) brush up against one another, the small moments of their friendships offering the last vestiges of hope. While in Citizen Kane (1941) the newspaper baron Charles Foster Kane has it all — money, power and influence — but he is consumed by memories of childhood innocence.