Essays · Movies

Cinema’s Vision of The American Dream Through the Years

Chasing the American Dream can be a lonely endeavor.
By  · Published on July 6th, 2017

Chasing the American Dream can be a lonely endeavor.

To celebrate America, we’re taking this entire week to look at how cinema has explored The American Dream. For more, click here.

Movies have a way of cataloging the years and showing how people lived in a certain era. For many individuals throughout time, the American Dream has been this unattainable goal that led to riches and happiness. The truth of the matter though is that the American dream means different things to different people. For one individual it could mean success in love. For another, it could mean wealth beyond wildest imagination. And for others, it could just mean the freedom to live life without the confines of society and rules.

These films each deal with the American Dream in their own fashion, and they often recognize that even when that dream is reached it can be a lonely view atop of the mountain.

Citizen Kane

Perhaps not the one that started it all, but the best place to begin. One of the greatest American films of all-time, Citizen Kane, exemplifies the lonely journey towards the American Dream. Charles Foster Kane had nothing in his youth except his sled and came from nothing with a family in poverty. They got lucky on a gold mine, and Kane was sent away to be raised properly, away from the care of his family. Although a specialized upbringing brought him a great education and countless successes, he went through life always looking for a connection. His first marriage would give him greater power but even less affection. Charles Kane was interested in being adored not to live through life in a civil partnership.

That would, of course, bring Charles Kane down the tricky path of an affair and subsequent madness in supporting that woman’s wildest dreams. When he loses an election to win governor because of the affair, he throws everything into the singing career of Susan Alexander. That road would be short lived as well because Kane never really learned how to love. He knew all about success, but he thought there was some measure of control involved with love. When Susan finally leaves him, he has nothing left except the sled that never asked for anything in return and provided him with joy unconditionally. Even though Kane sought greatness, perhaps that’s all he even knew. It was love and comfort that would’ve been his true success.

Bonnie and Clyde

Love wasn’t an issue with Bonnie and Clyde. Suffering through the Great Depression can make people do crazy things. It is hard to imagine the kinds of everyday commodities that Bonnie and Clyde had to do without. That would lead a rebel like Clyde to steal someone’s car. That would also inspire Bonnie to admire his efforts, quit her job, and join him in a life of crime. They start off small and while there is some rush of excitement involved, they start an insatiable hunger for even bigger successes.

Those successes weren’t only good for their pockets, but also it intertwined with their relationship. When things were good at work, it allowed Bonnie and Clyde to be close with one another. Their idea of the American Dream was very different. While it began with the ability to get out of their humdrum lives and do something exciting, it became a part of them. A bigger bank meant a bigger rush and more opportunity for things to go horribly wrong. Taking lives becomes part of the game and they would continue that path for as long as it would take them. What had once become a necessity, would only end when they would meet their demise.

The Godfather 1 and 2

Many of the great films in film history detail the journey for the American Dream. The Godfather focuses on the life story of not just Michael Corleone, who must deal with inheriting a family he wants to escape from, but also the life of Vito Corleone. Much of Vito’s past is saved for Godfather 2 as a flashback of his life. Vito is forced into a life he certainly could’ve never envisioned as a youth. After losing his parents and vowing to get revenge on Don Ciccio, Vito tries to make a life living as an immigrant in America. Of course, the American Dream was not just for Americans exclusively, as people from all over the world fell in love with the idea of having an equal opportunity to achieve success.

Even though Vito made it to America, he quickly found that the dream was not equal to the reality. There are mafia families in America just like the one he fled from in Sicily, and to make it in the game of life, Vito will have to make his own successes by any means necessary. Even though Vito manages to get his revenge and amass great wealth for his family, he never manages to find peace. There will always be a struggle to keep the safety of his family, and even when you have it all you still find that we all die alone.

American Beauty

As time changes, so do the ideas of what an American Dream can possibly mean. American Beauty’s Lester Burnham is certainly struggling with that concept. He has what any middle-aged man could possibly want in life — a successful wife, a lovely daughter, and a beautiful home with a small white picket fence. This is what everyone is told they should aspire towards. The only issue is that no one says how monotonous it all becomes. Lester’s job is a nightmare, and his love life with his wife is nonexistent. He dreams of quitting his job, becoming healthy, and sleeping with his daughter’s friend.

He quickly makes his moves deciding that he isn’t going to worry about his family anymore, but instead, take his happiness into his own hands. His dream begins eroding the family dynamic. Just when he is about to fulfill his ultimate desire of sleeping with the young woman of his affections, even that comes with a caveat. Nothing in Lester’s life can be exactly how he envisions it, no matter how hard he tries. Achieving his greatest happiness would lead to his end.

The Social Network

Social media is all about how we interact with one another. Nowadays it can be through written words, pictures, or even emojis. Social Network contains the idea of interconnectivity, but what exactly did that dream bring for its creator? The theatrical poster gets to the heart of problem easily, “you don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard University student, had recently been dumped. In a measure of revenge, he creates a website that allows students to rate the female students of Harvard based on attractiveness. A few partnerships and fund money later, and Facebook was born.

Unlike the earlier films in this feature, people don’t take each other down with guns, but rather through complicated and messy lawsuits. As Facebook continued to grow beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, everyone wanted a piece of the pie. The two men who approached Zuckerberg with the concept, The Winklevoss twins’, demanded a share of the company. Co-founder of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin, was also looking for money and fortune. Even though Zuckerberg had found monumental success, it came not at a financial cost, but the cost of anyone we would’ve called a friend.

American Honey

A very different story of youth in our current day, American Honey manages to show the life of a millennial drifter who is looking for herself. Star takes care of her two younger siblings by looking through the dumpster for food and just trying to get by. Then when an opportunity to escape her current situation arises she gets the heck out of town. She finds her own sort of happiness with a group of other teenagers who sell magazine subscriptions. Star also falls in love with a young man named Jake, who promises to show her the ropes.

Star really doesn’t know what her dream is yet, but she is constantly looking for what it might be. Jake has his own dreams of getting his own house. Star must find exactly what her dream might be. Does it mean financial success? Perhaps it means success in love? She doesn’t know exactly what it will end up being, but for now the freedom she is afforded means much more to her than anything else.

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